The phone rings and you don’t recognize the number on the caller ID. You think it’s a telemarketer and let it go to voicemail. The caller leaves a message that sounds something like this: “This is an important message about a serious matter. Please listen to the whole message carefully. This is an attempt to collect a debt. We’re attempting to reach … “. Slowly it dawns on you that this is for real. Using just a few pieces of data, an identity thief has opened an account in your kid’s name.
This is just the beginning of a nightmare that could have been prevented.
How can you prevent an identity thief from stealing your child’s data? In order to protect your child’s identity, guard your child’s social security number, place of birth and birthdate. Question how personal information will be used and stored. Consider registering your child with the credit agencies and an identity protection service. Finally, place a freeze on your child’s credit to prevent accounts being created in their name.
Despite the misconception that identity theft is an adult problem, many more kids are targeted every year than adults. According to the 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study done by Javelin Strategy & Research, over 1 million children in the United States were victims of identity theft in 2017. The credit bureau Experian did their own survey of identity theft victims and found that the average age of a victim is 12 years old.
Why would Criminals Want to Steal My Kid’s Identity? He/She Has No Assets Except for that Binky/Softball/Pokemon Collection…
Identity criminals consider a new social security number a prize. Consider this: it has no credit history attached. It’s not likely to be tracked by credit reporting agencies or be checked by an adult trying to take out a loan or applying for a credit card. In fact, the theft may not be discovered for years, until your kid is old enough to buy a car, get a job, apply to rent an apartment or fill out a college financial aid application. The length of time before the crime is detected means that it is harder to catch identity thieves who will have maxed out the accounts and slipped away.
How Does it Happen?
Take a look at how an identity thief might puzzle together enough information about your child to create a credit profile:
According to LifeLock.com, Synthetic Identity Theft is the fastest growing method for stealing an identity. If a thief learns a social security number, it’s the cornerstone to build the rest of a profile. The thief creates or synthesizes a profile, using the social security number to build a fake person. Without an existing credit file, the banks have little information to confirm the true identity of the applicant. They may reject the application the first few times, which only serves to build a credit profile for this fictitious person. Over time, this practice builds enough of a profile to approve the first card or loan. This is the point of “bust out” where the thief will harvest all cash and merchandise to be had before skating off to let all the accounts go into default.
And it’s not just credit accounts that can be mined by an identity thief. A criminal may seek and find employment under your child’s SSN and may even withhold income tax. In such a case a stolen identity can also impact eligibility for government benefits like disability payments.
There are millions of stories out there to illustrate the scope of this problem, and some as heartbreaking as the story of a 17-year-old autistic boy whose disability checks were under a threat of suspension from the Social Security Administration. They believed, falsely, he was employed in Texas. An identity thief used his social security number and his identity to apply for and work various jobs.
What Can You Do?
1. Guard Your Child’s Data – Personal Identifiable Information (PII)
Of all keys to the identity castle, this one weighs heaviest on the keyring. Unlike your child’s name, which may be shared by dozens, hundreds or thousands of others, the SSN is unique to each person. Financial institutions currently have access to Social Security Administration databases for verification but this database is rarely used for verifying information. Why? It’s slow and inconvenient to access, requiring consumer signatures and time.
Because these organizations and agencies don’t communicate effectively with each other to verify applicant PII, the burden is on you to protect your data.
The bottom line is that you need to guard the SSN. Keep the paper copy of your child’s SSN / SSN card locked up, preferably in a fire-resistant safe. Never carry the number with you, not in your wallet; not in your purse; not in your car’s glove box. Wallets and purses can be lost, stolen or rifled through. If you must present the card for official purpose, get it back to the safe location asap. If you’re a numbers person like me, memorize it. Presenting the number is enough for most situations requiring an SSN.
Place of Birth
Identity thieves can look up relatives, maiden names and public records. Although this practice is on the wane, many banks still use a mother’s maiden name as a challenge question answer. This data can be used as a secondary confirmation that you are who you claim to be or by others who claim to be you.
This is another piece of data that is used regularly to confirm an identity. Identity thieves who steal children’s data make up their own birthdate to match the new fraudulent persona, but other types of fraud may manipulate an existing person’s PII (including a birthdate) to apply for lines of credit or government benefits.
Bottom line: be cautious about where and how you share your child’s birthdate, especially on social media.
Organize – All important documents should be kept in a fire-resistant safe or safe deposit box. This includes SSN, birth certificate, passport, medical insurance information or other important documents.
Shred – shredding PII keeps paper copies out of the waste stream, a possible way for thieves to retrieve and use the information. Keep a cross-cut shredder in easy reach of your mail so that shredding becomes a habit. I take the extra step of burning the shredded paper in our firepit just because it seems really silly to shred paper and put it in a plastic bag to sit in a landfill for years to come. An added benefit is that it gives you the comfort of knowing that this information is not going to be pieced back together from ash.
Redact – Censor that paper copy! If you have document files that you need to keep in hard copy, cross out SSNs with a ballpoint pen to create deep grooves and then blacken with a permanent marker.
Question – unfortunately, our society is built on using SSNs for every dang thing. Your child’s doctor, dentist, school and the bank (among many other organizations) will all require the SSN. It’s worth a try to ask if there may be alternative identifiers that can be offered, such as the last 4 digits of the SSN or driver’s license number. They may be willing to take a deposit instead. You may be asked to provide the SSN when it’s not essential, so always ask why it’s needed and what they d0 to protect it (during and after its usefulness to them).
2. Check and Prevent
As vigilant as you are in protecting paper copies and keeping your child’s information private, you can’t control data hacks at the pediatrician, school and even at the hospital where your kid was born. Defense against electronic leaking of PII requires a different strategy.
Check Your Child’s Credit Report.
The three credit bureaus, Equifax , Experian and TransUnion, operate independently from each other, and you’ll need to check each one. You can create a credit report for your child and then put a free freeze on it (see links below), thereby preventing anyone from using the SSN to create an account.
You may already have clues that your child’s identity has been compromised even before you check the big three credit monitoring companies.
Be on the alert if you experience these things:
- Your child receives offers for pre-approved credit cards.
- Phone calls to your house from collection agencies.
- Bills arrive addressed to your child.
- A collection notice arrives with your child’s name on it.
- An IRS notice is addressed to your child.
- Your application for government benefits for your child is denied or under review because of an SSN problem.
Alternatively, you can register your child for a credit monitoring service like Identity Guard or LifeLock. These services can give you added peace of mind but may charge upwards of $10.00 – 30.00 per month. This is a good idea if you or your child has already been a victim of identity theft.
If the worst has happened and you find that your child’s data has been compromised, all is not lost. Take a deep breath and remain calm. It’s likely that the situation took time to develop and it will take time to resolve.
You can immediately begin damage control by following the steps below and keep careful records as you work through this process. You will be required at every step of the way to prove that identity theft has occurred.
What You Should Do….At a Glance
Here’s an overview of the steps to take right away. For more detailed info about this process, go to identitytheft.gov
Step 1: Call each company that you know is involved
- You want to start a conversation first, then back it up in writing with documentation by registered mail. Explain that your child’s information was stolen and that someone has assumed his or her identity. If your child is under 18, he or she is considered a minor and cannot be bound by a legal contract.
- Ask the company to close the account and give you written confirmation that your child is not responsible for the debt.
- File an Identity Theft Report and create a Recovery Plan at identitytheft.gov.
- You may choose to file a police report with your local police department – Many companies now require copies of a written report.
- Request copies of the falsified application.
- Send a letter registered mail to document the entire conversation. Once you have this document (see below), include a copy of the FTC Identity Theft Report and a copy of your child’s birth certificate. Include a copy of the police report, even if not requested.
- Keep a running record of each conversation or communication with dates, names and other details.
Step 2: Call Each Credit Bureau. Place a fraud alert or a freeze on your child’s credit profile and get your child’s credit reports.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, Each credit reporting agency has different requirements to inquire about and/or obtain a child’s credit report. Mail the information via certified mail with return receipt to ensure your information was received.
- Equifax 800.525.6285
Visit here for more information. The link provides a list of the documentation you will need and asks that you provide a letter of explanation.
- Experian 888.397.3742
Visit here for more information. The link provides a list of the documentation you will need to send as well as a form that needs to be filled out by the parent/guardian submitting the request.
- TransUnion 800.680.7289
Visit here to fill out TransUnion’s form.
Per TransUnion’s website, “You can also email email@example.com. Remember, do not email sensitive, identifying or account information.”
www.annualcreditreport.com – free credit report from 3 agencies
What’s the difference between a fraud alert and a freeze?
A fraud alert is in effect for one year and can be extended by request. It displays an alert on the credit file which is visible to financial institutions. It states that the account is at risk for identity theft and asks that additional scrutiny and additional documentation be required from the applicant to confirm identity. Once a fraud alert is created with one credit reporting agency, the two others will be alerted as well. There is no cost to set a fraud alert.
A freeze is more restrictive. It prevents any application for credit until the account is unfrozen by a special log-in and P.I.N. assigned by the credit reporting agency. A freeze will remain in effect indefinitely. With a credit freeze, you need to apply separately to each credit reporting agency. There is no cost to apply an account freeze.
What To Do Next
Unfortunately, you will need to get organized for the long haul to ensure that each known account is resolved. And be prepared for others to pop up periodically before the mess is cleaned up. The survey completed by Experian determined that the average length of time to resolve an identity theft case is 3 years. That’s a long time to wait to get your child’s name cleared, especially if they’re on the threshold of an important life event, like applying to college.
You may be able to shorten the time necessary to clear your child’s name by time by:
- Keeping careful records organized in a binder with separate sections for each account
- Sending all communication registered mail, return receipt requested
- Working on the process in short, frequent sessions instead of long intermittent marathons. This may allow you to keep focused and minimize frustration.
- Keep calm in all your interactions; civil tenacity is most effective when dealing with complex organizations.
Can I freeze my child’s credit?
Yes, you can freeze your child’s credit (also known as a security freeze) by requesting this in writing from each of the 3 major credit agency. You must submit documentation which confirms your identity and your ability to legally represent your child. This is a free service that is available to every citizen of the United States. Children under the age of 16 must have a parent freeze the credit file, while children 16 and over can complete this process themselves. Once a credit file is frozen, confirmation of the freeze will be mailed to your address. A personal identification number (P.I.N.) assigned by each credit reporting agency will be required to lift the freeze.
What are the Most Common Types of Identity Theft?
- Driver’s license number theft
- Social Security Number Theft
- Medical Identity Theft
- Character/Criminal Identity Theft
- Financial Identity Theft
- Tax Related Identity
Where Can I Find Identity Theft Statistics?
The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a great source for Identity Theft Statistics