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:
¿ Monitor your child's online activity. Many sites ask for personal information such as last name and address, which can open the door for identity thieves.
¿ Don't ignore the junk mail your child receives. For example, if your child suddenly begins receiving credit card promotions or other solicitations in his or her own name, that's a red flag.
¿ If you want a magazine subscription for your child, put it under your name. This will help keep your child's name off of mass marketing mailing lists.
¿ If someone insists he needs your child's Social Security number, demand to know why. Often the number isn't needed.
¿ Don't let your children carry their Social Security cards in their wallets.
To combat child identity theft, there are now credit monitoring services for children. For example, Experian is marketing a new service for $19.95 a month that will alert you if accounts are opened in your child's name.
But you can do for yourself much of what these services provide.
If you suspect your child's information has been stolen, take action immediately. Check to see whether a credit file on your child has been created; it shouldn't have been -- these files are generated only when credit is granted. But check only if you have a reason for concern. In checking for a file, you have to send by e-mail or postal service sensitive information to the bureaus.
Each credit bureau has its own procedure to check for a file on a child. For instance, with TransUnion you need to send an e-mail to email@example.com. From the information provided, the bureau will respond as to whether there is a file on record. Parents can visit http://www.experian.com/fraud or call 800-311-4769 to request a copy of a minor's credit file. Equifax requires you to mail a copy of the child's birth certificate and proof that you are the parent or guardian. Mail the information to Equifax Inc., In Care of Minor Child, P.O. Box 105139, Atlanta, Ga. 30348. All the bureaus indicate that if a file is found for a child, the account will be flagged as belonging to a minor.
I'm not telling you all of this to scare you. You don't need to panic. Just stay alert.
And let me throw this in. If you're a young adult and you discover your parent or a relative has stolen your personal information, don't feel guilty about reporting it to authorities. I'm not expecting that you'll be able to do this as a teenager, but you certainly should once you are an adult. After all, your parent was supposed to be protecting you, not ruining your as-yet untarnished credit record.
¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.She also has a personal finance call-in show that airs from 8 to 10 p.m. Sundays on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 169 "The Power."
¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
¿ By e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.