HOUSTON – As parents, we worry about everything from the food our children eat, to the toys they play with, to making sure their teeth are brushed. Yet, when it comes to protecting our children, there is one crucial area many of us miss — their identity.
“I have to keep proving who my son is when it’s his identity that’s being used,” Sara Woodington said.
Woodington lives in Philadelphia with her son and knows first-hand the perils of child identity theft.
“They told me at that time his Social )Security number) had come up in Texas,” Woodington said.
Woodington says even though her son is 18, he is disabled and cannot work. Plus, the family has never lived in Texas. Woodington said for the last five years, someone’s been using his Social Security number to get a string of dishwashing and kitchen jobs in Austin.
“It just kept going on and he just kept getting job after job,” Woodington said. “Not only is this man using my son’s identity, but he’s using a disabled person’s identity on top of it.”
Woodington said crime has threatened her son’s Social Security and state benefits.
“I have to keep going back to Social Security every three months and explain again that my son is not working,” Woodington said. “It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of days where I end up spending hours sitting, waiting at Social Security.”
The thief has not been caught. Woodington said he never stays at one job for more than a couple of months and always leaves behind a bogus home address. The last home address listed for this man comes back to a gas station.
“I contacted the police and they said to contact the IRS, I contact the IRS, they say there’s nothing they can do. I contact social security, they say there’s nothing they can do,” Woodington said. “I was extremely furious and I felt like I was running in circles.”
After months of calls from Woodington to several agencies, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation and filed a warrant for Alberto Garcia Anaya.
Woodington said she does not know where this man got her son’s ID and she is not alone in her struggle. A study by Javelin Strategy and Research showed more than 1 million children were victims of ID theft in 2017. A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab found cases of children as young as 5 months old having their IDs stolen.
“There are two main categories of victims; senior citizens and children,” said Brett Johnson, a cybercrime expert. “What’s even more valuable is a child’s ID.”
Johnson is a reformed cybercriminal who now works with law enforcement to help educate on how to safeguard against these crimes.
Johnson said a child’s ID is a blank slate, with no worries about bad credit or existing debt. A thief can use a child’s entire ID, or just part of the personal information, to create fictitious or “synthetic” personas, to get credit cards, loans, buy homes, cars or get a job.
“So, on the ‘dark web’ you can buy a child’s identity for $2,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things that criminals understand, the only thing of value is the information.”
Johnson said identity theft can come from data breaches or unscrupulous employees stealing the information from doctor’s offices, hospitals or government offices. Many thieves will also use “social engineering,” which tricks a parent or child into giving out personal information to a person they think is a trusted source.
Another reason a child’s ID is valued is that a thief can use it for years without anyone noticing.
“Parents do not know, or don’t realize, because they’re not proactively checking,” said Houston police cybercrime detective Eric Carr.
Carr said few parents think to check their child’s credit report since a child shouldn’t have a credit history.
Carr said many of the cases he investigates involve adults who did not realize their identity was stolen as a child until years after the fact.
“Unfortunately, when that child gets older, they realize they have bad credit,” Carr said.
“So this pops up when they apply for a college loan, their first apartment, things like that?” asked Channel 2 investigator Robert Arnold.
“Correct,” Carr said.
Carr urges parents to periodically check their child’s history with all three credit bureaus. He also cautions parents to ask tough questions when asked to provide their child’s ID, even to trusted professionals like a pediatrician.
“You can ask, ‘Hey, how are you protecting my information?’ You don’t want your information just in a file where anyone could get access to it,” Carr said.
Carr said physically protecting your child’s ID also applies to the home. He said he’s investigated several cases where family members are the ones stealing the information.
“They may have damaged their credit so they’ll use their children’s credit,” Carr said.
Also, pay attention to what apps your kids are using. Carr said some hackers create games to trick children into entering personal information.
“To the average adult, that would be a red flag, but to a 15-year old who’s trying to get this awesome, cool game, he may not think of it as a red flag,” Carr said.
Carr said this is why it is important to talk with children about the importance of not sharing any personal information online or in the real world.
Carr and Johnson said if your child suddenly gets credit card offers, mortgage refinance offers or coupons in the mail, it is a sign their ID may be compromised. Johnson said unexpected coupons may come from a thief trying to establish a history with a child’s ID by opening reward accounts at grocery stores, pharmacies or gas stations.
Both Carr and Johnson also recommend proactively putting credit freezes on your children’s ID so accounts can’t be opened.
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