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Teaching Teens to Thwart Identity Thieves


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By Judith Collins, Ph.D.

Identity theft has taken on a new twist. Teens are now prime targets.

Since the passage of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998, the incidence of identity theft crimes has escalated yearly. Today, identity theft is known as the crime of the 21st century. Perpetrators use stolen identities to commit credit card, bank, retail account, telecommunications, and wire fraud.

In addition, identity thieves launder money, traffic drugs and smuggle undocumented immigrants into the country. Perpetrators also present stolen identities when apprehended for committing crimes, which is how innocent victims come to have criminal records for crimes they did not commit.

Identity theft has eroded the economy of the United States and threatened the security of its residents. Victims of stolen identities suffer monumental consequences. Increasingly, these victims are teens. Parents and teachers can help protect teens from identity theft.

The costs of this crime are great. According to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2003. The estimated cost to consumers was $5 billion and, for businesses, $48 billion annually. These figures, however, are conservative. They represent volunteer data and do not include victims who did not participate or report the crime. In addition, no dollar figure can be assigned to the emotional costs suffered by victims who discover drained bank accounts or are denied driver licenses, student loans, credit card accounts or employment.

Regrettably, the burden of proof in identity theft cases is on the victim. There are many obstacles to resolving these issues, which can take weeks, months, or even years to rectify. The lengthy process of restoring one's reputation can be complicated, frustrating and time-consuming. Relationships with family and friends can suffer, and productivity at home, work and school deteriorate. Many teens do not know where to go for help. This is where teachers can make a difference.

Young people aged 18 to 29 years are targeted most by identity thieves. While research conducted by this author at Michigan State University shows that financial and health care institutions were the prime sources of stolen identities in the past, schools are now an additional target for the following reasons:

  • Criminals became aware that schools, like financial and health care institutions, use the Social Security number as the prime identifier.

  • Students do not usually use the SSN until the age of 15 when they apply for driver permits or first jobs, so identity thefts against them may go unnoticed for years.

  • Teens are largely unaware of the threats of identity theft, and those who are aware often fail to protect themselves.

  • Teens frequent the Internet where they freely and, sometimes unknowingly, provide personal identifying information.

  • Teens are known for having an "it can't happen to me" attitude. They also take greater risks relative to older age groups.

  • To help teachers educate teens about the growing crime of identity theft, Qwest Communications developed content on its Incredible Internet Web site designed especially for educators. The Web site makes the following materials, created for Qwest by this author, available to teachers free of charge:

    • Course syllabus with detailed lesson plans and interactive classroom exercises (adaptable for junior high, high school or college level classes)

    • PowerPoint presentations on how teens can protect themselves from becoming victimized, how teens can find out if they've been victimized and what teens should do if ID theft occurs.

    • Teacher's manual that includes exams and solutions to crossword puzzles and other activities designed to pique the interest of students.

Visit www.incredibleinternet.com and click on the "educator" button to learn more. (Parents welcome too!)

Judith Collins is adjunct professor of security management, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University and the director of the Michigan State University-Business Identity Theft Partnerships in Prevention and the MSU Identity Theft Crime and Research Lab. She has authored four books on identity theft.

02/13/2006

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