Baby's Identity Safety: Smart Way to Protect Her Credit

Posted on 14 September 2007

An Article from BabyZone.com

Just over a year ago, Frank Blackwood watched a television program warning viewers that children might be susceptible to identity theft. Blackwood's wife had fallen victim to identity theft, but he had a hard time believing his two children, ages two and one at the time, could be victims, too. Blackwood, on staff at a Baptist church in Texas, decided to call a credit reporting agency to check—just in case

"When I finally got through to a real human being, I gave her my oldest daughter's Social Security number (SSN) and then there was silence on the other end of the line," recalls Blackwood. "She asked me to repeat the numbers. Then she said, 'Uh-oh.'"

Bad news: Someone had applied for and received credit using his oldest daughter's SSN. And the news got worse. His younger daughter had been an identity theft victim, too. Over the next few months, Blackwood estimates that he spent over 600 hours fixing his daughters' credit histories.

Child Identity Theft on the Rise
Blackwood's not alone. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 400,000 children nationwide encounter some type of identity theft each year. "I believe that's a conservative estimate," says Linda Foley, the founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization that aids victims. She points out that there's a large jump in the number of ID theft victims between the ages of 18 to 24. She suspects that rise is most likely because many ID victims who are minors don't discover the crime until they finally apply for credit, around the age of 18.
Why Criminals Steal Children's Identities
Children are prime targets for identity thieves because they have clean credit histories, and a thief can potentially use the child's identity for years without anyone finding out about it.

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."

What Criminals Do with a Child's Personal Information
Identity theft isn't just about financial gain. While not as rampant as financial identity theft, criminal identity theft and cloning are also potential hazards.

With criminal ID theft, someone might offer your child's name and information instead of his own when involved with a crime.

Cloning happens when a criminal takes over the victim's identity: He's not only using the SSN to establish credit, but also to secure rent and employment applications. 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.

Where Are Social Security Numbers Vulnerable?
Davis, a parent of three-year-old twins, says criminals also target children because they know how easy it is to obtain a child's SSN. "We as parents have to give [our child's SSN] out to so many different people—at the doctor's office for insurance, at the dentist, even for some daycares." Thieves know that these offices will have plenty of sensitive information, often with little security to protect it.

Foley, at the Identity Theft Resource Center, adds that there are a variety of ways for criminals to snag someone's identity, from sophisticated Internet scams and hacking into personal computers to good old-fashioned stealing. For instance, some criminals target the mailboxes of people who have "It's a Boy!" signs on their lawns, knowing that a Social Security card will be in the mail soon. Some find the children's Social Security cards in the parents' wallets. And Foley even knew of one case where a criminal made up a SSN, somehow used it to obtain credit, and then a newborn was issued the number later.

Protecting Your Child's Social Security Number
Safeguarding your child's SSN is a matter of being proactive. For instance, insurance companies often use the number to identify your child for their files and for billing. Call your insurance and ask to have another number issued as an identifier for your child. (Some insurance companies are already doing this.)

 

When it comes to applying for various programs for your child, whether daycare or piano lessons, if you're asked for your child's SSN:

  • Ask why the child's number is requested.
  • Ask how the number is protected.
  • If you don't feel comfortable with the security measures in place, ask if there's any way you can provide a different form of identification for your child, such as showing your child's birth certificate—but don't send copies!

Finally, don't keep your child's SSN in your wallet. Keep her Social Security card and any documents that contain that information (like your tax records) in a secure place in your home.

And if you suspect for any reason that your child's SSN has been compromised, Foley suggests that you contact a non-profit ID theft center, such as hers or the Bureau of Consumer Protection, for help.

Protecting Your Child's Identity
Beyond keeping your child's SSN safe, you can also check your child's credit history regularly to make sure that no one is using her number to establish credit.

Agencies like LifeLock will do this for you, for an annual fee, but you can also monitor your child's credit on your own.

  • Just as you should regularly check your own credit reports for errors, consider obtaining credit reports for your children's SSN every year. You can find more information at freecreditreports.com.
  • 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. See the Consumers Union's Guide to State Security Freeze Laws for more info.
  • You can also contact the three major credit reporting agencies and have them put a fraud alert on your child's SSN. But, the fraud alert expires after 90 days so you need to call regularly to keep that alert in place.
Staying Safe
Keeping your child's personal information private shouldn't be a constant worry. Foley gives parents some hope—later this year her organization will be pushing for federal legislation that will close some of the shortcomings in the credit reporting system that have been a boon for ID theft criminals. She believes the new legislation will end 70 to 80 percent of the ID theft cases involving minors.
About the Author
Kristen J. Gough frequently writes about health and family issues. That is, when she's not busy with her three daughters.

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