The Littlest Victims of ID Theft

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Tara called into my XM radio show distressed about her debt.

But unlike many people who complain about the bills they allowed to mount, she was not to blame for much of her debt.

Someone, perhaps her grandmother, parents or another close relative, had stolen her personal information and opened credit card accounts, one when she was just 16.

This young woman is part of a small but disturbing trend in identity theft that involves crooks stealing personal information and opening credit in the victim's name.

One might think children would be spared from this crime, because who in his right mind would extend credit to a kid?

The Federal Trade Commission reported that cases of identity theft for people under 18 rose to 10,835 last year from 6,512 in 2003. In 2003, just 3 percent of identity-theft victims were under 18. By last year, the figure had reached 5 percent. But keep in mind that these figures only represent formal complaints.

Tweens (children 8 to 12) and teens are particularly vulnerable because of their increased consumer activity, particularly over the Internet.

"These platforms facilitate information exchange, and if left unmonitored, could lead to enhanced identity theft," said Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education at Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus.

What's so frustrating about child identity theft is that the crime can go undetected for years. Often it isn't discovered until the victim applies as a young adult for credit or tries to rent an apartment or open a bank account.

Here's another reason authorities don't know how many children are affected. Rather than being stolen by a stranger over the Internet, often the personal data is illegally used by a child's parent or another close relative.

Sometimes a parent already laden with debt will open new credit accounts using a child's Social Security number. Of course, such fraud goes undetected because the parent isn't going to complain. And in adulthood, the child doesn't often rat out Mom or Dad.

Sweet of Experian offered these suggestions for parents to safeguard their children's identity:

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