By Ellen Sirull

You buckle them into car seats, make sure they wear a helmet when riding their bikes, and keep a first-aid kit on hand at all times. As a parent, you do everything you can to guard your childrenís physical safety, but do you know how to protect them from identity theft?

How common is child identity theft?
More than 15,000 of the identity theft complaints to the Federal Trade Commission in 2016 affected children and teens (anyone age 19 and under), which represents 4% of all identity theft complaints for the year. The Identity Theft Resource Center, which tracks identity theft and data breach statistics, also reports that 4.4% of the identity theft victim calls they received last year involved child identity theft.

While child identity theft accounts for a small portion of all fraud and identity theft, it can still be extremely damaging, especially when it goes unnoticed. Identity thieves can cause extensive damage to a childís credit years before the crime is detected.

Why do identity thieves target kids?
Children can be seen as a treasure trove for identity thieves. Because they donít pay bills, take out loans, or hold credit cards, childrenís credit histories are clean slates identity thieves can exploit.

Identity thieves also know that parents and guardians often donít think to monitor their childrenís identities or credit files. Many parents donít discover their children have been the victims of identity theft until the child has to use his or her Social Security number for the first time, such as on college financial aid applications, or when applying for a first summer job or credit card.

How thieves use childrenís identities
Anything identity thieves can do with an adultís personal identifying information, they can also do with a childís information.

For example, they may open credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, or other lines of credit in the childís name. They may use the childís information to open utility accounts or commit fraud on government, tax, health, or employment forms. Criminals may use a childís identity to conceal their own in order to avoid arrest or prosecution.

Because child identity theft can go undetected for so long, it can be very difficult to clear up the problems it causes.

Protection and prevention tips
While identity thieves are creative and motivated, parents and guardians still can do a lot to reduce the risk of their child becoming a victim of identity theft.

1. Protect your childís Social Security number. Never share it with anyone who doesnít have a very good reason for having it. For example, your accountant needs your sonís number if youíre declaring him as a dependent on your tax return, but the softball team he plays for doesnít need it as identification. Itís always OK to ask for clarification on why your childís (or your) Social Security number is needed before sharing it. Many times, itís not actually necessary. Never carry your childís Social Security card, just as you shouldnít carry yours around. Memorize the number and keep the card stored in a secure place.

2. Monitor your childís personal information. Unrecognized activity involving your childís email address, phone number, bank accounts, or other personal information can be a signal that information has been compromised. Although a phone number may seem innocuous, identity thieves can use your childís phone number to get access to accounts. Many companies use a phone number for identity verification. Caller ID spoofing allows identity thieves to make your childís phone number appear when they call one of these companies. They also use automated callers (hoping to get your child to type in or record information), and some are brave enough to impersonate institutions and call your child directly.

3. Pay attention to privacy policies. Schools, clubs, dentists, doctorís offices, sports teams, etc. ó virtually everyone has a privacy policy that details how your childís private information will be used, handled, and protected. Read these policies to understand potential sources of risk to your childís information. Also, as mentioned above, you should always ask questions to clarify or understand more if you donít understand any details or information included in a privacy policy.

4. Use your own information whenever possible. Parents often share information about their kids without thinking about it. For example, your daughter wants to enroll in a gaming storeís rewards club, and you open the account in her name. While organizations are likely not purposely misusing the information, itís possible their data, including your childís information, could be stolen or misused. Protect your childís personal information by using your own instead, whenever possible.

†5.Avoid oversharing on social media. Social media has become a great way to keep far-off friends and family up to date on what your child is doing. But identity thieves also know social media can be a source of useful information. Avoid sharing personal information about your child on social media with anyone other than people you know personally.

6. Monitor your childís social media and online activity. You may want to reconsider, or do more research, before you allow a minor child to have a social media account in his or her real name. Itís also important to closely monitor your childís social media use to ensure you know who he or she is talking to and what theyíre sharing online.

7. Keep your home safe. A break-in could net burglars more than just your physical valuables if important documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards are unsecured in your home. Always lock doors and windows, set the alarm if you have one, and keep valuable documents in a safe or another secure, locked location. Fireproof safes that lock are good ways to keep information protected from various threats.

8. Teach your children well. Itís important for kids to understand identity theft risks. Find age-appropriate ways to talk to children about the topic. You probably already do without even realizing it. For example, telling your young child not to talk to strangers includes her understanding not to tell them her name.

Detecting signs of child identity theft
Although child identity theft can sometimes be difficult to detect, there are some signs to watch for:
* Your child receives offers for pre-approved credit cards.
* You receive bills in your childís name.
* A collection notice arrives with your childís name on it.
* Your application for government benefits for your child is refused because benefits are already being paid out to someone using your childís Social Security number.
* You receive a letter from the IRS saying your child owes taxes. Be aware, however, that any phone call from someone claiming to be with the IRS is almost certainly fraudulent. The IRS communicates with taxpayers by U.S. mail only.

If you suspect your child is a victim of identity theft, your first step should be to check his or her credit file. Contact a credit bureau to find out if a credit report already exists in your childís name ó there shouldnít be one. If a credit report exists, you can look into options like a credit freeze.

What to do if your childís identity is stolen
If you discover evidence of child identity theft, you should act quickly to:
* Notify the credit reporting agencies that fraud has occurred on your childís file and ask them to investigate.
* Notify the business or financial institution that issued the credit or loan. Let them know the account was fraudulently opened in the name of your minor child. Ask them to investigate.
* File a police report with your local law enforcement agency.
* File a fraud report with the FTC online or by calling 877-438-4338.
* Child identity theft can be a scary crime for parents to face, but with some vigilance and preventive steps, itís possible to reduce the risk that your child will become a victim of identity thieves.

Ellen Sirull is senior manager of content at Experian Consumer Services, a division of Experian, the nationís largest credit bureau. She helps consumers learn about credit, personal finance and identity theft protection.