When my son was in elementary school, we used the Internet to look up facts on dinosaurs, earthquakes and Benjamin Franklin for school reports. But now, as a sixth grader, Matt is starting to dip his toe into the social aspects of the Internet, such as e-mail and instant messaging. I’m sure he’ll be wanting to check out Facebook or MySpace before long. (Although I’m certainly not pushing it!)
Of course, we’ve had conversations about the importance not posting personal information on the Web, for safety’s sake. But now the Federal Trade Commission is urging kids to avoid posting personal information for another important reason: identify theft. The problem isn’t just for adults anymore, they say.
PROTECTING CHILDREN’S INFO ONLINE
According to the FTC, identity theft from victims age 18 and younger increased from 6,512 in 2003 to 10,835 in 2006. (These figures are based on formal complaints only, so actual incidences of identity theft are higher.) In 2003, about 3 percent of identity-theft victims were younger than 18. By 2006, the figure had risen to 5 percent.
The “friends-of-friends” aspect of social-networking sites allows pre-teens and teens to provide information about themselves that can now travel far beyond the kids they know. And these sites can increase our kids’ exposure to people who have criminal intentions. The FTC and other online-safety experts (see below) suggest these tips for socializing safely on the Web:
° Know the potential audience. Think about how different sites work before deciding to join a social-networking site. Some sites will allow only a particular community of users to access posted content. Others allow everybody and his brother to view postings.
° Encourage your child to think about keeping control over the information she posts. She might consider restricting access to a select group of people, such as her buddies from school, a club, a team or a community group.
° Keep critical information private. Tell your child to never post his full name, Social Security number, address, phone number or bank and credit-card account numbers — and don’t post other people’s information, either.
° Keep screen names vague. Make sure your child’s screen name doesn’t say too much about her. Kids shouldn’t use their name, age or hometown on social-networking sites.
° Remind kids that posted material never disappears. Once your child posts information online, he can’t take it back. Even if he deletes the information from a site, older versions exist on other people’s computers.
THESE ORGANIZATIONS CAN HELP
To learn more about avoiding identity theft online, check out the following organizations:
° i-SAFE — Endorsed by the U.S. Congress, i-SAFE is a non-profit foundation dedicated to protecting young people on the Web. The site incorporates classroom curriculum with community outreach to empower students, teachers, parents and law enforcement to make the Internet a safer place.
° National Cyber Security Alliance — This non-profit organization provides tools and resources to help keep kids (and adults) safe online. NCSA members include the Department of Homeland Security, the FTC and many private-sector corporations and organizations.
° Staysafe — This educational site helps consumers manage online safety and security issues.
° Wired Safety — This group is made up of volunteers around the world. Wired Safety provides education and assistance on all aspects of cybercrime and abuse, privacy, security and responsible technology use.
° Federal Trade Commission — To file a complaint or to get information on consumer issues, visit the website or call toll-free 877-382-4357. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity-theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
° GetNetWise — This is a public service sponsored by Internet-industry corporations and public-interest organizations to help ensure that Internet users are protected.
° Internet Keep Safe Coalition — This site, the home of Faux Paw the Techno Cat, was created by a coalition of 49 governors, law-enforcement agencies, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other associations dedicated to providing tools and guidelines to teach children to use technology safely.
OTHER WAYS TO AVOID KIDS’ IDENTITY THEFT
Experts at Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, note that child identity theft can go undetected for years because it often isn’t discovered until the victim applies for credit, tries to rent an apartment or tries to open a bank account. There are things you can do to protect your child against identity theft offline, too:
° Don’t let kids carry their Social Security cards in their wallets. These cards should always be stored in a safe place.
° Keep your child’s magazine subscriptions under your name, not his. This helps prevent your child’s name from appearing on mailing lists.
° Pay attention if your child starts receiving junk mail. If your 12-year-old suddenly begins receiving credit-card invitations in her name, it may mean that her personal information has been compromised.
° If someone insists he needs your child’s Social Security number, verify that he really needs it. I have started questioning this practice at doctors’ offices, and have refused to give out my family’s Social Security numbers to be used as patient identification numbers. When I explain my reason for refusing, most staff members have been understanding. Some have even said “Gosh, I guess I shouldn’t give mine out at my doctor’s offices!”