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3 secrets to protect kids from identity theft in the social media age

Sherri Kuhn is a freelance writer, blogger and social media junkie. With a son in college and a daughter in high school, she always has something to write about. Sherri blogs from the heart — with an occasional side of sarcasm and humor...

The 1 online risk most parents forget to warn their kids about

Here are a few stats that are guaranteed to make parents uncomfortable: More than half of kids get their first cell phone by the age of 6. And by the time those tumultuous teen years roll around, up to 92 percent of teenagers use the Internet daily. With teens and young adults being the most likely to go online, it's more important than ever for parents to address potential cyber dangers head-on.

Most adults are diligent about protecting their identity and credit from being misused or stolen, but what about your teenager’s information? When children are young, their parents maintain control of personal identifiers such as social security numbers and bank accounts. When teenagers start to fill out employment applications or college admission forms they have easy access to this personal information, making it harder for parents to protect them.

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Are teens really at risk?

It is easy to assume that since your teen hasn’t established credit in his name that his identity is safe. According to Greg Meyer, community relations manager at Meriwest Credit Union, “The social security number of a 14-year-old is just as good as one from a 40-year-old — often better as there is no past history. When a minor's social security number is used to access a credit report, the reports are usually squeaky clean.” Fraudulent activity can go on for quite some time without being detected.

Squeaky clean being the operative phrase here, which might explain why kids under 18 are up to 51 times more likely to get their identity stolen compared to adults, based on the most recent figures from a 2011 Carnegie Mellon CyLab study. And if you needed any more reason to start teaching kids how to take online security precautions young, this identity theft risk applies to babies and toddlers too. We saw this play out in the worst possible way in 2015 when, unbeknownst to parents, millions of minors' identities were leaked online in an Anthem health insurance data breach.

While we may not be able to control the big stuff, like a major data breach, there are a few simple yet effective things we can do as parents to help teens stay safe:

1. Keep it secret

One of the most important things to teach your teen is to rarely give out her social security number. Many applications and businesses will ask for it, but sharing it leaves your teen vulnerable. Teach him to always ask why a social security number is needed, and to only give it out when absolutely necessary — like in doctor’s offices or at the bank.

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2. Internet safety

Since there are various ways in which identity thieves can access their information, teens need to be vigilant in all aspects of their life. Julie Cook, certified financial planner at Savant Capital Management, shares a few tips on how teens can protect their identity while using their computers and other devices.

  • Keep anti-virus software up-to-date on all computer devices, including smartphones.
  • Use strong passwords with a mix of letters, symbols and numbers. Make them at least six characters long and change them every three weeks. Avoid using passwords such as birthdays, common words or the last four digits of your social security number.
  • Use cloud computing with caution.
  • Be extra cautious in choosing the information you share on social media websites.

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With 92 percent of teens going online daily and 24 percent of teens using the Internet "almost constantly," social media is a big sticking point when it comes to identity theft risk. Facebook is still popular among teenagers from ages 13 to 17, with 71 percent of all teens using the site, followed by Instagram and Snapchat. To make matters worse, within the "friendly" environment of social media, many teens play fast and loose. In a 2013 nationwide survey conducted by Hart Research Associates, one in three teens admitted to sharing their social media (or another online account) password and username with someone besides their parent.

3. Banking smarts

How can your teen protect his banking information? Mitchell Weiss, author and adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford Barney School of Business offers these tips.

  • Safeguard all confidential information — especially paper checks.
  • Create separate passwords for the different types of online accounts that you manage. For example, your banking and credit card account passwords should be entirely different from your shopping site passwords and your email passwords.
  • Never share your PINs and passwords with anyone under any circumstances.
  • Do your ATM transactions on your bank's own ATMs and never use a keypad that can be seen by others or, for whatever reason, seems to have been tampered with.
  • Never do your banking or any other confidential transacting in a public place or via an open Wi-Fi.

Help your teen protect her identity now to avoid serious problems in the future.

Updated by Bethany Ramos on 2/24/2016

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