Front lawns across the United States are now studded with colorful declarations of children’s accomplishments, as they graduate from high school, middle school, elementary school, and even preschool. With the picture of a mascot or simply bold letters spelling out “Congratulations,” the names of millions of schoolchildren are on display for friends and neighbors—and identity thieves—to see.
The yard signs come from a good place; they’re a way to publicly salute kids of all ages, robbed of graduation ceremonies and other end-of-the-academic-year festivities due to COVID-19 shutdowns. But these publicly displayed replacements can be catnip for scammers, who take the children’s names to the bank.
Con artists use stolen identities to take out loans, open new credit cards and spending accounts, commit tax fraud, get healthcare, and upgrade utilities—all while the victims are still watching the Disney Channel or being toilet trained. All of these leave the children with destroyed credit histories and, in many cases, emptied bank accounts.
“Every time I go by, the hairs on the back of my neck go up. It’s a gift to that low-level, street-level, opportunistic identity thief,” says Neal O’Farrell, executive director of the California-based Identity Theft Council, who’s seen the signs in his own neighborhood while walking his dog.
More than 1 million kids under 18 become the victims of identity theft every year, according to Robert Chappell, the author of the book Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know.
Experts expect the amount of identity thefts to jump now. Research has shown that this kind of fraud spikes during an economic downturn—in this case, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered parts of the economy, left millions of people jobless, and ruined investments from stock portfolios to real estate.
A jackpot for ID thieves
Nothing is juicier to identity thieves than information about children. Getting the social security number of a minor is truly hitting the jackpot, because in the vast majority of cases, it takes years before anyone realizes this precious information has been snatched. The truth comes out when the children are old enough to apply for credit cards or get their own cellphone accounts.
Even without a child’s social security number, plenty of damage can be done. Some scammers blend bits of real and made-up information to craft new, fake identities—what’s called synthetic identity theft. From lawn signs, they can garner a first and last name, address, and approximate year of birth (assuming, say, 5 or 6 years old for a kindergarten grad and 17 or 18 for a high-schooler).
Scammers also may use those personal data points to reach out to the grads’ families. They pose as banks with discounted car loans for recent grads or companies offering free presents or gift cards for the college- or high school-bound freshman—ruses that would then have the con artists ask for a social security number for “confirmation.”
“If I were a creative identity thief, I’d drive around the neighborhood and take down all this information,” says O’Farrell. “It’s creating dossiers on families that left their identity on the front lawn for you. It’s perfect.”
In front of Andre Berot Spring’s home in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, are three signs celebrating her high school senior, whom she describes as “dejected” about her upended final year. On the ends of the row are “Council Rock North High School Class of 2020” and “Rice University Bound!” which she made. The middle sign—which crows, “Congrats Class of 2020 Senior Amelia Spring,” and features a professional headshot of the teen—came from the school.
“I consciously didn’t put her name on it . . . Someone’s driving by [and they would know] there’s an 18-year-old girl living here,'” Spring says. But she changed her mind and muted her concerns when the third sign arrived. “I saw everyone else in the neighborhood doing it. We didn’t want to be stick-in-the-mud parents.”
Not everyone sees cause for concern, even for the youngest of graduates. Security expert Robert Siciliano explains that using a yard sign to steal a minor’s identity takes a lot of work.
“The way a bad guy would get the social security number of that child is to call the house and maybe pose as the Social Security Administration or IRS or FBI or local law enforcement,” he says. “The low-hanging fruit isn’t the yard sign with the kid’s last name. It’s the bad guy heading to the dark web and buying 10,000 names, addresses, and social security numbers for $1 each with a stolen card.”
Chappell disagrees. He says even seemingly harmless yard signs can sometimes help enterprising scammers connect the dots.
“You don’t need to know all the information in order to be successful at conducting identity theft on children,” Chappell says. “Don’t give more information than you need to. Try to find the balance between proud and being unwise about their personal data.”