[Another fantastic Guest Post from another fantastic reader and contributor. Thanks for your time and effort as you alert readers to an important issue].
It's that time of year, parents are busy filling in school and camp application forms, complete with the "required" names, ages, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and more. But before you provide that information (that actually may not really be required), stop, and think, and realize that you could inadvertently be setting up your child for a painful financial future.
Identify theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. As per the Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10064.html) "A dishonest person who has your Social Security number can use it to get other personal information about you. Identity thieves can use your number and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name. Then, they use the credit cards and do not pay the bills. You may not find out that someone is using your number until you are turned down for credit or you begin to get calls from unknown creditors demanding payment for items you never bought. Someone illegally using your Social Security number and assuming your identity can cause a lot of problems." This is a very real threat, and numerous victims have had their lives turned upside because a crook used or stole their Social Security number.
So what does this have to do with your kids? In 2006, 5% of all social security numbers stolen belonged to children, and in 2010 that number had increased to 8%. In one recent study of 42,000 children, Carnegie Mellon found that over 10% of their Social Security numbers had been misused, that’s more than 50 times the rate for the adults studied. It's gotten so bad that next month the FTC is sponsoring an event entitled "Stolen Futures: A Forum on Child ID Theft" (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/stolenfutures/). Kids are the perfect identify theft victim because their Social Security numbers may not be used for years, allowing thieves lots of time to open accounts, rack up bills, and even commit crimes ... and your child will never know until they actually try to open a bank account or get a job or buy a house.
This is a serious problem. The government has long recognized that Social Security numbers were being requested too frequently and in ways never intended. This is why medical insurance companies are no longer allowed to you Social Security numbers as account numbers (until a few years ago your insurance card had your Social Security number embossed on the front). But, despite insurance companies not actually needing your Social Security number, Doctor's offices routinely ask for it for no other reason than that’s what they are used to. The truth is that you may decline to provide Social Security number, and you'll still be seen by the doctor.
And schools and camps are no different. Just about every school and camp application asks for your Social Security number. In fact, one yeshiva application we just filled in asked for a copy of my child's birth certificate! Why? I've asked multiple schools and camps to explain the need for this information, and they have yet to give me a reason other than that's the way they have always done it.
Ok, so schools don't need your child's Social Security number, and they most definitely don't need a birth certificate. But what's the big deal if you provide it to them, after all, you trust your school, right? Actually, wrong! Few (if any) of our schools have the right safeguards in place to secure confidential information. Offices are routinely left unlocked, filing cabinets are often open, computers are seldom adequately secured, there is usually no formally defined information access policy or audit-trial. In fact, I have personally seen piles of applications sitting openly on secretary's desks. And that's just this year's forms. If you are feeling brave, ask your school what they did with previous year's forms! And if you think schools are bad, camps are even worse!
I'll admit to generalizing here. There may indeed be some schools and camps with perfect policies in place to secure your children's confidential information. But, even if this were true, it still does change the fact that schools in general do not need this information, and you as a parent are free to refuse to provide it. Or put differently, for over a decade we have sent kids to multiple schools and camps in multiple states, have always refused to provide Social Security numbers, and the institutions have still been more than happy to accept our kids and cash our checks.
That’s not to say that there are never legitimate needs for the information. But, when asked, challenge the institution for details about data security, ask who will have access to the information and where it’ll be sent, and if the school is collecting the information for a government agency, consider sending it yourself.
The bottom line is just as you protect your kids from illnesses, inclement weather, bad drivers, poor influences, and more, you also have to protect their financial futures from potential ruin. Don’t give your child social security to anyone, even (or especially) schools just because they ask for it. The answer must always be no, unless a very compelling reason and justification can be made for saying yes.