Protect Your Kids from ID Theft at School

Annual School Registration Forms Can Be Source of Danger

School Forms Can Lead to Child Identity Theft. Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Every new school year, parents are required to fill out lots of paperwork about their kids including registration forms, health forms, and emergency contact forms, just to name a few. Many of these forms ask parents to provide personal information that could be used to commit child identity theft, according to the consumer protectors at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

With a child's Social Security number, identity thieves can, among other things, open bank accounts and get credit cards in the child's name.

Since parents don't normally expect children to have a credit file, they rarely request their child's credit report. As a result, child identity theft often goes undetected for years, rearing its ugly and potentially costly head only when the victim applies for jobs, loans, rental agreements or credit cards.

There ought to be a law, right? Well, there is.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, protects the privacy of students' education-related records. Under FERPA, parents have the right to:

  • Inspect and review their children's education records including any forms collected by the school that contain personal information.
  • Allow or refuse ("opt-out") to allow the school to share or otherwise disclose any personal information in their child's educational records. In other words, you have the right to stop the school from sharing your child's information with non-education-related outfits like advertisers, vendors, and fund raising organizations.

    Schools are required to send an annual notice to parents explaining their rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

    The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) gives parents and guardians the right to inspect all school instructional material and surveys before they are given to students.

    In addition, the PPRA requires schools to get written parental permission before they can require minor students to participate in any Department of Education-funded survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals any personal or family information.

    Other Child Identity Theft Protection Tips

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers some additional tips to help parents protect their children's personal information at school.

    Know Who Has Access to School Records

    Find out who at the school has access to your child's records and personal information and make sure those records are stored in a secure location. Also ask school administrators what policies and procedures the school has in place to protect your child's information. If they don't have any, or you feel they are inadequate, send a letter to the school board and keep a copy for your records.

    Check the School's Directory Information Policy

    Since school student directories usually contain things like your child's name, address, date of birth, telephone number, email address, and photo, they can be a gold mine for identity thieves, not to mention stalkers and abusers. Remember that the FERPA requires schools to notify parents and guardians about their school directory policy.

    The law also gives parents and guardians the right to opt-out of allowing the school to release directory information to third parties. The FTC recommends parents put their opt-out requests in writing and keep a copy for their files. If you don't opt-out, the school may make directory information available not only to the people in your child's class and school but also to the general public.

    Read the Forms Carefully

    Don't just fill out the forms the school sends you, read them. Pay special attention to material that asks for personal information. Look for terms like "personally identifiable information," "directory information," and "opt-out." Also remember that you have the right to find out exactly how the school will use your child's personal information before you reveal it.

    Watch Out For Programs Not Sponsored By the School

    Programs like sports and music activities that are not sponsored by the school can be another source of danger.

    These programs may send out promotional material or have websites on which children's names, pictures and other information are displayed. Read the privacy policies of these organizations, and make sure you understand how your child's information will be used and shared.

    What If the School Has a Data Breach?

    While they are getting better at it, public schools have never exactly excelled at data security. If the school notifies you that they have experienced a loss or theft of student information, talk to the school administrators, teachers or staff involved about the incident. Keep a written record of your conversations. If necessary, write a letter to the appropriate administrator, and to the school board.

    How to File a Complaint

    If you feel the school has failed to adequately protect your child's information or has denied your rights under the FERPA or PPRA, you may file a written complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Contact the Family Policy Compliance Office, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20202-5920, and keep a copy for your records.

    How to Get More Information

    To learn more about child identity theft and how to deal with its consequences, read Safeguarding Your Child's Future, from the Federal Trade Commission. You may have additional rights under state law: contact your local consumer protection agency or your state attorney general for details.