Esther Cepeda: Identity theft can steal childhood

CHICAGO — A few years back, I profiled an identity theft victim who didn’t learn that someone had been using his common Hispanic name until the IRS came after him for thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.

State’s attorneys, law enforcement officials and immigration experts told me that legal immigrants, naturalized citizens and U.S.-born residents with common ethnic names were increasingly being targeted by illegal immigrants who resort to stealing plausible identities to find jobs.

As bad as that is for an adult, just imagine how much worse it would be if you were already a long-time victim of identity theft as a minor.

This happened to a Hispanic student at one of the high schools near my home. She was filling out college applications when she discovered that someone else — someone she trusted — had been using her name and Social Security number.

“Children are actually being targeted at a rate 35 times greater than adults,” said Robert Chappell, a lieutenant with the Virginia State Police and the author of the book “Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know.”

“Twenty-seven percent of the children victimized knew the person and it was either a close family member, extended family member or a friend,” said Chappell. “That’s an emotional no-win situation for the child because if they’re one of the 73 percent who didn’t know who did this to them, they’re left with the feeling that their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them. The 27 percent feel personally violated and believe their parent specifically targeted them for victimization, plus they’re often left with the inability to clean the mess up themselves.”

In the case of a relative or close family friend “borrowing” a child’s name, date of birth and Social Security number, the child’s parents might be unwilling to get the authorities involved. “One of the first critical steps is reporting the crime to the police. But many times, family members are unwilling to turn their relatives or family friends into the police, and without that police report, credit agencies are very reluctant to clean up the child’s record,” Chappell said. Many children learn that this crime has been committed against them when they apply for a driver’s license, to college or for jobs.

Are Latinos at special risk? Chappell said, “there are particular traits or characteristics that increase your risk. In particular, if an illegal immigrant is looking for an identity to steal, then they want to steal from someone who either resembles them or is of the same culture so they can pass off the stolen name as their own.”

Safeguard your child’s identity by understanding that their names and data have financial value to others. Get them credit reports that include searches on their Social Security numbers to weed out criminals who use close-enough names and birth dates to fool creditors.

Your kids will benefit from your efforts for the rest of their lives.

Esther Cepeda writes for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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