Identity thieves are increasingly targeting children, in some cases stealing their identities before they are born
The theft of a child’s identity can go undetected for years and create serious consequences for them in the future. Children are vulnerable to identity theft due to clean histories and low detection rates. 140,000 children are victims of identity theft every year in the United States alone. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 400,000 children nationwide encounter some type of identity theft each year.
In most cases, a social security number is all that’s required to open a credit account and many victims who are minors don’t discover a debt has been accrued in their name until they finally apply for credit around the age of 18.
A thief may also use your child’s SSN to secure rent or employment. Todd Davis, founder and CEO of LifeLock, an ID theft protection agency, says that employers check SSN that potential workers submit to make sure that they’re valid—not to insure that they belong to that person. In other words, there’s no system in place to verify that the SSN someone gives a landlord or an employer is actually his or her own.
Financial debt is not the only major concern with the theft of a child’s identity, criminal identity theft is also a potential hazard. With criminal identity theft, someone might offer your child’s name and information instead of his own when involved with a crime. If they are arrested, these crimes could become associated with your child’s record.
Johnny May, a security consultant and the author of Johnny May’s Guide to Preventing Identity Theft, explains how easy it is for a criminal to use your child’s identity.
First, the criminal obtains your child’s SSN from an illegal source. (May describes a Social Security number as “the keys to the kingdom.”) Next, a criminal goes into the local big-box retailer and applies for credit using your child’s number. “Sure, it might be a small amount, but it helps him establish a credit history,” says May. Then the criminal pays the minimum balance each month. Once he has one credit card, it’s easy to get more and more. He can rack up charges for years.
May explains that there’s no system in place at the credit reporting agencies to check a SSN against a person’s identity. At the credit bureaus, a SSN is only checked for credit history. “The first time the credit bureau starts tracking reports is when someone first applies for credit using the Social Security number.” Meaning, no one ever checks if the Social Security number belongs to a 42-year-old man or a two-year-old who can’t even say “credit card.
Signs your child’s identity may have been stolen
- Your child begins to receive suspicious mail, like pre-approved credit cards and other financial offers normally sent to adults, in his or her own name
- You try to open a financial account for him or her but find one already exists, or the application is denied because of a poor credit history
- A credit report already exists in his or her name. If the child has one, he or she may have been targeted already, since only an application for credit, a credit account, or a public record starts the compilation of a consumer credit file
Protecting Your Child’s Social Security Number
- Don’t keep your child’s SSN in your wallet. Keep your child’s important papers, including birth certificate, passport and social security card locked up in a secure place in your home
- Keep a record of who has the social security number of your child. Should anything suspicious happen, this might help investigations into tracking down the thief
- Refuse to give out your child’s birth certificate or social security number unless absolutely necessary. Ask the following questions if your child’s SSN is needed:
- How is the information stored, in what format and what safeguards are in place during storage?
- What is their reassurance of the continued confidentiality of the information?
- How do they plan on disposing the information after it’s no longer needed?
- Check your child’s credit history regularly to make sure that no one is using her number to establish credit
- Check your child’s social security earnings record. Many identity thefts go undetected because parents don’t assume that the child even has a credit or earnings report.
- If your state allows a credit “freeze,” place one on your child’s SSN. A freeze means that no one can establish a credit line without contacting you first. Keep in mind that a credit freeze only applies to new lines of credit, not existing lines of credit that may be fraudulent
- Contact the three major credit reporting agencies and have them put a fraud alert on your child’s SSN. The fraud alert expires after 90 days so you need to call regularly to keep that alert in place
For older children
- Make sure you have antivirus software installed on your home computer
- Educate your children about safe Internet use. Teach them to keep all personal information private when they are online
- Tell your children never to give out their Social Security number without your permission
- Continue to check your children’s credit periodically
To request a report on your child’s annual Social Security Earnings record, call 1-800-772-1213 or visit http://www.ssa.gov/online/ssa-7004.html.
If you suspect that your child’s information has been used fraudulently, notify the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and Transunion. Follow the cues for “fraud” on the automated phone systems.
If you’ve become a victim, learn to remedy the effects of identity theft.