Many people think that identity thieves and other cybercriminals target only individuals with substantial income and assets. After all, this presents threat actors the most potential for a lucrative payday and opportunity to commit fraud, right? The startling truth is that hackers rarely discriminate on who they target to steal personal information and other critical identifying data. If there is an opportunity to infiltrate, it will be exploited – even if that opportunity involves children.
Ransomware and data breaches continue to be a threat for businesses in all sectors. And while instances involving big corporations and government entities often dominate the headlines, cybercriminals are also targeting sources of vast individual information, including school districts and health care providers. In recent years, many large school districts across the country have experienced cybersecurity threats leading to compromised personal information for thousands of students. Over 1,000 schools have experienced a situation involving stolen data posted on the internet in 2021. These direct attacks on school districts are on the rise, and the threat this poses to children grows right alongside.School districts don’t always present the same financial incentive for cybercriminals as other targets. If a ransom is not met (which is often the case with an incident involving schools), stolen information is posted on the dark web or other hacker networks where it can be sold to other criminals for continued fraudulent purposes. Larger districts in wealthier regions may be at higher risk for an incident, but that doesn’t mean that smaller schools are out of harm’s way.Most schools don’t have the resources to deal with a ransomware incident. Even if cybersecurity measures are in place, schools are more than likely inadequately equipped to handle a large-scale attack effectively. Attacks can go completely unnoticed as most smaller schools don’t have dedicated cybersecurity staff members. This makes smaller districts an enticing target for threat actors, and with almost two-thirds of the schools in the country having less than 2,500 students, it’s easy to see why.
Schools collect various information on students that cybercriminals can use to commit fraud. While grade reports and other directly scholastic data are not necessarily valuable, other important and valuable data is readily available. Names, social security numbers, dates of birth, and additional personally identifiable information are also commonly stored within school networks. Healthcare information and economic standing are also in the mix when thieves gain access to school district data.Even though children may not have bank accounts and credit cards, that doesn’t make this exposure of personal information any less serious. Cybercriminals can easily steal a child’s identity with the information that schools collect. These fake identities can then be used to commit many types of fraud, from opening false accounts to obtaining loans under a child’s name. This fraudulent activity can go unnoticed but can dramatically impact an innocent victim before they are old enough to even understand the issue. Credit scores and future financial standing are both very much on the line for every student impacted by a data breach involving their school.School districts may not always know exactly how much information they have on students, which complicates the effects of a cybersecurity breach even further. Combine this with inadequate security measures, and an ominous scenario begins to develop. If a school doesn’t know what specific data it possesses on its students, it won’t know what to alert parents of when a breach occurs. Parents may never know that their children’s information has been compromised, limiting any potential actions that they can take to remedy the situation and reduce the risks of future fraud.
Unfortunately, the burden of dealing with the fall-out a school-related hack or data breach often becomes the responsibility of parents. There aren’t currently many systems or regulations to dictate exactly how a school district must deal with a cybersecurity incident or provide support when a hack occurs. This results in families being left in the dark on the urgency of handling the aftermath to limit risks for their child moving forward. It also means that there isn’t much that can be done in terms of preventative measures to reduce the effects of an attack in the first place.Understanding the risk of potential fraud is an essential step if a child’s school or school district experiences a data breach or ransomware incident. Parents should be on the lookout for any indicators that their child’s information is being used fraudulently. Phone calls about bills in a child’s name or an IRS letter relating to unpaid taxes your child owes are red flags that someone has created a fake identity using the stolen information. If you are denied student-related government benefits such as health care or financial support for food, that’s another indicator a threat actor may be committing fraud under your child’s name. The FTC has some good information relating to signs of child identity theft and steps to take if your young one becomes a victim here.Parents can take the step of freezing their child’s credit as a preventative measure to limit the risks of data breaches involving their personal information. This can help stop threat actors from using any stolen information for fraudulent purposes. The process of freezing a child’s credit can be somewhat involved, but it’s well worth it and comes at no cost. Regardless of whether your child’s school district has experienced a cybersecurity incident, placing a credit freeze on your child’s credit report files at the three main credit reporting agencies is worth pursuing as an added measure of protection.The truth is that no one is entirely safe from identity theft and cyber fraud. Common advice states that it is safe to assume that your personal information has already been compromised, and this guidance unfortunately extends to your children as well. By understanding the dangers of this reality and having restoration plans in place, you can limit risks and create a safer future for your kids.