Blog Post

Basic Cyber Safety for Children

Cindy Greenman, CFE

I may be aging myself by admitting this, but my college ID card has my photo, my birthdate and my social security number right on the card. When my professor “posted” grades from tests, they would literally post the students by name, social security number (which was our student number) and our grade on their office door. There was no such thing as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). But then again, this was a long time ago, before the internet was so prominent in our world.

So, this begs the question, when do we start educating our children about fraud? Our world has changed from the days of warning our children of “stranger danger” — which is the idea and warning that all strangers can be dangerous. It is difficult for some children to understand that not all adults have their best interest in mind. Many parents don’t want their children growing up frightened, but they should aim to protect their personal information. Precisely like adults, children are exposed to the risk of identity theft and fraud. Just surfing the internet can expose both adults and children to online scams, but there are some that specifically target children.


Child identity theft is a growing problem. According to the 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study (Javelin Strategy & Research), over one million children in the United States were victims of identity theft in 2017. Because most children under the age of 18 have no credit history, this type of identity theft can go on undetected for many years. Parents and guardians should consider freezing their children’s credit, making it much more difficult for identity thieves to open new credit accounts in their names.

Here are some tips on how to teach children about staying secure and how to avoid identity theft.

All ages

Before children go online, internet safety should be explained. Here are some ground rules you can outline for your children:

  • Set your account(s) to private so that only friends you’ve added can see what you post.

  • Don’t share personal information on social media sites (for example, home address, phone number, full name, etc.).

  • Carefully review all photos before sharing to make sure it doesn’t accidentally reveal something personal. I always told my children, “Don’t post a picture that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.”

  • Do not accept friend requests or chat with people online that you do not know in person.

  • Use complex, strong passwords.

  • Be skeptical of emails. Never click on attachments or links within an email or attachment unless you verify it with a known sender.

  • Don’t use public Wi-Fi networks.

School age

  • Begin teaching them more about the concept of money. This can be a difficult concept for children to grasp. Kids need to be aware of the importance of money in everyday life. With a healthy respect for money, they will also be able to appreciate keeping it safe.

  • Put in plain words what identity theft is. The entire concept of identity theft can be complicated and comes in so many different forms, so keep it simple when explaining the basics. You could start by telling them that identity theft is when someone steals your personal information in order to commit a crime.

  • Go over what personal information is and why it should be kept private. Explain that these pieces of information are personal identifiers specific to them and should only be shared with their parents’ permission. Things like:

    • Full name

    • Social security number

    • Date of birth

    • Phone number

    • Medical information

  • Discuss how to properly take care of documents containing personal information. Explain that once their identifiable information is “out there,” it is very difficult, if not impossible to recover.

  • Deactivate unwanted social media and gaming accounts.

  • Any electronic devices that store information should be wiped clean before being sold, given away or even destroyed.

  • Leave the social security number field on job applications blank. They can fill that out when they are hired.

  • Never leave documents sitting out for others to see.

At this age, you can also start to explain what a credit report is and what they are for. Expound the fact that if a fraudulent account is opened in their name, it can affect their credit and follow them for a lifetime. Though most messes can be cleaned up with time and effort, it is easier to prevent it from the very beginning.

Young adult

  • Anyone old enough to possess a credit report should check it regularly. Everyone can order a copy of their personal credit report online, once per year for free.

  • Once someone turns eighteen, they are often inundated with offers of credit cards in the mail, through email or even in person. Many of these offers are scams just phishing for personal information. The offers received through the mail with their names on it should be shredded to prevent others from applying in their name.

  • Review credit card and bank statements (online or hard copy) monthly. Watch for any irregularities and report any errors immediately.

  • Watch out for student loan cons. It has been reported by the United States Department of Education that scamming telemarketers are charging students to “process financial aid applications,” “erase student loan debt,” or “promise scholarships and grant money.”

Red flags to teach your children

Fraudsters are constantly trying new tricks, but scams typically share classic warning signs. Here are three common red flags to share with your children so they know what to look for:

  • Pressure to act quickly. Scammers will try to rush their targets before they have a chance to pause and think about it.

  • A sense of a “too good to be true.” Surprise giveaways, lottery winnings, free money and other similar ploys are red flags to a scam.

  • Asking for too much information. Usually, authentic organizations will not ask for personal information online, over text messages or on the phone. If they do, teach your child to hang up, look the organization’s contact information up on their official website and contact them that way to verify the legitimacy of the request.

In the end, it is all about communication with our children. Clearly communicate. Be honest and open. Be patient and understanding. Once you all have this figured out, let me know. I’m still working on this with my own two kids who are now in their 20s.

SOURCE: ACFE Insights – A Publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

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