Here’s a quick quiz: Which of the following scenarios means your child has become a victim of identity theft?
• You receive a notice from the Internal Revenue Service that your child did not pay income taxes, or that the child’s Social Security number was used on another person’s income tax return.
• You or your child are turned down for government benefits because benefits are being paid to another account bearing the child’s SSN.
• You get bills or collection calls for goods or services that you did not order.
The correct answer is: “All of the above.” Each scenario could be an example of a child’s identity being stolen.
A study by Carnegie Mellon CyLab in November 2011 found that 10.2 percent of more than 40,000 juveniles who were studied experienced some kind of identity theft or fraud. The comparable rate among adults was 0.2 percent.
Why the big difference? Children are routinely issued SSNs as infants; if a child’s number is stolen, the theft may not become apparent for months or even years. Those numbers are prime targets for thieves, who look for SSNs with clean histories. With them, thieves can commit financial fraud, do an end-around bad credit ratings and get around constraints placed on illegal immigrants.
Theft can also occur within families. A driver whose license is suspended or revoked might “borrow” the child’s SSN to establish a new identity and regain a license. A person might assume the identity of another family member to repair credit, apply for a job or to avoid arrest.
When a parent discovers that the child’s ID has been stolen, he or she bears the burden of proving that the child is in fact a child, and that the child did not run up the bills that someone else is trying to collect. The parent becomes lead investigator, trying to figure out how the child’s personal information got into the wrong hands while setting the record straight.
When a person turns 18 and applies for financial aid for college or tries to rent an apartment, only then might he or she discover that his or her identity was stolen years before. The investigation becomes a cold case, with a fraudulently obtained credit history in shambles and no way to find out exactly what happened. The thief often uses the identity until the credit history is destroyed and the thief can no longer get credit using that identity.
Parents are urged to check their child’s credit history when the child is no older than 16, to make sure that history is clear (access the three major reporting agencies for a free annual report at www.AnnualCreditReport.com).
The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center ( www.idtheftcenter.org) says sometimes parents who get in financial trouble use the SSN of their own child in an effort to rebuild their financial lives. They may think they will pay off their bills in time, so that their child’s credit history won’t be damaged; that may or may not be the case.
Identity theft was the Federal Trade Commission’s leading complaint last year (the 13th straight year the crime ranked number one), with over 369,000 complaints. The FTC has step-by-step help at its website: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft. The Maine Attorney General’s website ( http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/index.shtml) has a checklist of action steps as well. Victims may also contact the Identity Theft Resource Center at 888-400-5530.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.