Guard your kids against child ID theft, the ‘silent bankrupter’

Wyatt D. McVay of Troutdale, held by dad Matthew in 2003, had his identity stolen at a very young age. Dad tried to open a savings account for Wyatt but the bank found the Social Security number had been used by someone else, who had written fraudulent checks.

You take your child for an orthodontist consultation, and the form asks for Social Security number, next of kin, date of birth. Or you sign your child up for tee-ball, the grade school choir, the Scouts …

All those registration forms, all those instances of your child’s personal identification data floating around out there. Do you know who’s keeping that data secure, and how?

Joe Mason bets not. “We as consumers recognize we are very exposed — we’re also a very trusting society.” So we continue to provide our children’s information as requested, not realizing we’re setting them up for possible ID theft.

Mason is senior vice president of Intersections Inc., which aggregates information for consumers to protect their IDs. He warns of an explosive growth in the theft of kids’ identities, which can go undetected for years and cause big headaches down the road.

Mason calls it a “silent bankrupter,” saying many don’t realize the theft until many years — and thousands in dollars of fraudulent debt — later. He wrote a book, “Bankrupt at Birth: Why Child Identity Theft Is On The Rise How It’s Happening Under Parents’ Noses,” about the issue this year. The statistics speak for themselves:

  • The average age of an identity theft victim now is in elementary school. 
  • The averaged debt incurred by child ID theft victims is $12,779.
  • A million or more families in the U.S. have been exposed to data breaches.

Most adults know they should be on the lookout for signs their personal information has been compromised, but children seem to be at greater risk these days. A recent study done by Richard Power, a fellow at Carnegie Mellon CyLab, used identity scans of more than 40,000 U.S. children. It found 10.2 percent had someone else using their Social Security number; that’s 51 times higher than the 0.2 percent rate for adults in the same population.

Why do identity thieves target kids? Because they have new, “unused” Social Security numbers (parents must get a Social Security number for their infants in order to claim the dependent tax deduction), and because they’re unlikely to have a file with the credit-reporting bureaus, much less a credit monitoring service.

Mason says thieves get their hands on identifying information in many ways. Doctors offices, day cares, hospitals, schools, sports teams all commonly ask for SSNs and all are sources of ID thefts. Mason encourages parents, “Don’t be shy, ask why.” Why is the SSN needed? How will the organization protect the data? Is there another ID number that can be used?

He notes that 33 states collect Social Security numbers as part of K-12 enrollment, but 80 percent of states don’t have proper data retention policies to protect IDs. Reported data breaches at educational institutions are on the rise, and several medical providers and insurers in Oregon have reported that personal ID information has been stolen, lost or compromised.

In addition, kids are famously unwise about their computer use, both in sites they visit (perhaps clicking on ads or sites a grownup would understand are suspect) and in the personal information they share. Netsmartz has a good guide to keeping kids safe online

The identity thief may be the classic criminal who will use a “clean” SSN to create a synthetic identity and get credit cards or loans, or it could be an illegal immigrant trying to create documents in order to work.

Sometimes, it’s even a relative or a family friend. Mason said some parents have used a child’s SSN to get a clean credit file to sub for their own shaky financial record.

You can watch for red flags that indicate your child’s information has been swiped:

Watch the mailbox. If your child starts getting material that doesn’t match his or her age, check into it. Examples: Offers for credit cards, collections letters, medical or other bills.

Answer the phone even if it’s a telemarketer. If a telemarketer calls asking for your child, get as much information as you can about how they obtained your child’s name and number.

When your teen goes to the DMV to get a driver’s permit or license, ask if there are unpaid tickets (or any tickets) under his or her name already.

Act immediately if you or your child is denied government benefits because benefits are being paid to another account under the SSN, or if your tax deduction is denied for the same reason.

When your teenager or college student tries to buy a cellphone, get a car or rent an apartment, help them investigate if they’re denied for bad credit. 

If you do find evidence of ID theft, you should first file a police report. That document may be key in helping to address the damage later.

Then, follow the steps the FTC suggests.

You will need to contact the three credit reporting agencies in the U.S.: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Then, you can consider placing an initial fraud alert on the credit file.

Work with the credit bureaus to find out where the ID has been used and to shut down those accounts. Mason strongly advises that you note whom you talked to and when on each call, and to request written documentation of account closures.

After that, request your child’s credit report every few years. It’s free once a year at (watch out for similarly named sites, which charge for the information and try to sell you credit protection services).

If you wish, you can enroll in identity protection services. Mason is general manager of Identity Guard, one such service. It offers “kID Sure” for $5 a month. You can find other services online as well. 

— Kathy Hinson

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