On September 1,the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee about identity theft and children. At the hearing in in Plano, Texas, Deanya Kueckelhan, Director of the FTC’s Southwest Regional Office, delivered the FTC testimony.
The theft and fraud involving children's Social Security numbers is a growing problem. Identity thieves can access and steal Social Security numbers from children’s records in schools, doctors offices, social services agencies, and other sources. Sometimes, family members who have fallen on hard economic times use the identities of their children to obtain credit they couldn't obtain otherwise. Experts explore the problem recently in the Stolen Futures forum, hosted jointly by the FTC and the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.
For adult identity theft, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in its National Crime Victimization Survey Supplement that about 11.7 million persons, about 5% of all Americans ages 16 or older, were identity-theft victims during a two-year period ending December 2008. The financial of that theft was $17.3 billion.
For child identity theft, a study by ID Analytics found 142,000 instances of identity fraud each year in the United States where children are the victims. Another study by the Carnegie Mellon CyLab of 40,000 children who had been enrolled in an identity protection service found that 4,311 of those children -- about 10.2 percent -- had loans, property, utility, and other accounts associated with their Social Security numbers.
In her testimony, the FTC's Kuechelhan describe another aspect of the child identity theft:
"... a child’s unused SSN is uniquely valuable to a thief because it typically lacks a previous credit history and can be paired with any name and birth date. In effect, a child’s identity is a blank slate that can be used to obtain goods and services over a long time period because parents typically do not monitor their children’s credit..."
Kuechelhan also described the identity protection problem:
"... fraud alerts, a key tool used by adult victims of identity theft to warn potential creditors of possible identity theft, are premised on the existence of a credit file. Parents ordinarily cannot place a fraud alert on their child’s credit file if the child has no such file. Further, remedies available under federal law such as extended fraud alerts, access to documents underlying the theft, and blocking of erroneous debts typically require a victim to obtain a police report to document the crime... children victimized by parents or guardians are often reluctant to file a police report naming a loved one or a source of financial support as the perpetrator."
Read the FTC testimony (PDF).
What is a parent to do? First, concerned parents should understand the available credit file protection tools: fraud alert, credit-file freeze, and the differences between the two tools. Second, investigate a credit monitoring and identity protection service to cover both parents and children in your family. Several services exist, which I will explore in future blog posts. Shop around because monthly prices and features vary.
Third, teach your children, tweens, and teens about money, credit, the sensitive personal information they must protect, and their responsibility when they become adults to monitor their credit files produced by the major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can find plenty of information in this blog.
In my opinion, a broader solution to the problem would be for credit reporting agencies to automatically place a free Security Freeze on the credit reports of all children. This freeze would automatically be lifted (for free) when the child turns 18. Parents could temporarily lift the freeze for children younger than 18 for instances to apply for education loans for that child.
What do you think of child identity theft?