The worst unintended consequence of this culture seems to be the false sense of anonymity and invincibility kids tend to feel when they're online. They don't cheat in school because there'd be consequences if they got caught. But I sense that many kids feel that cyber-hacks, regardless of their severity, occur in an online vacuum and are free of real-world consequences. To take it one step further—because of this assumption, young people tend to be more cavalier about the sensitive information they share publicly.
If you think about it, the Sony breach merely underscores something obvious. The gaming networks and similar sites are delicious targets for the "because I can" crowd. Although the hackers themselves may not be trying to open a phony bank account with your child's newly acquired PII, there are others, most likely older and much more venal, who would love to get their paws on that data for just such a purpose. Beyond this, there is another type of currency available uniquely on the gaming networks—access to the accounts and special permissions related to a gamer's skill, highest play level and acquired "spoils of war"—all of which have value on the Internet black market. That's right, the youngest hackers are probably stealing identities because they are looking to make General in Halo Reach without having to do all the work themselves to rise through the ranks. (For those of you who are older than 15, Halo Reach is a video game in which players earn military-style ranks for successfully completing missions and shooting stuff.)
Regardless of the motivation, it is harmful on several levels that this information is now airborne. And as all readers of this column must know by now, once the data is airborne—it's out there!
Sad reality check—we need to be as careful with our kids' PII as we are with our own. Limit the amount of data your child makes available to anyone online. In fact, an effective countermeasure may be to fudge the data a bit. Does the gaming network really need to know any child's street address (frankly, do they really need to know yours)? From the moment your child is born and assigned a Social Security number, you'd best monitor it, perhaps not every minute but certainly at least once or twice a year. And you should be sure to instruct them to pass it along to no one (employers aside). Bottom line—don't allow your child's zeal for vanquishing extra-terrestrial invaders, terrorists or street thugs alienate them from the benefits of a sound financial beginning as they come of age.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.