Identity Thieves Setting Sights on Kids, Report Finds
A new report about identity theft suggests that thieves are increasingly targeting children, who often go years before finding they’ve been fraudulently saddled with debt.
In the report “Child Identity Theft,” Richard Power, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab cybersecurity research center, found that children’s Social Security numbers are hot ticket items for criminals. Power said children’s identities are being stolen in growing numbers for a slew of illegal activities, including financial fraud and for obtaining false IDs for illegal immigrants.
“A child’s identity is a blank slate, and the probability of discovery is low, as the child will not be using it for a long period of time,” Power wrote in the identity theft report.
10 percent of children are ID theft victims
Power found that, based on identity scans for 42,232 U.S. children under the age of 18 in 2009-2010, 4,311 — 10.2 percent — had someone else using their Social Security number. Children’s stolen IDs were used primarily used in credit card and loan applications for cars and homes, but also for utility bills, property assessments, deeds, mortgages and foreclosures and to obtain driver’s licenses.
The youngest victim of identity theft was five months old, and 303 victims were under the age of five. The majority of incidents — 1,849 — involved minors ages 15 to 19. The largest fraud, $725,000, was committed against a 16-year-old girl.
“Wouldn’t you want to know your child was in foreclosure on a home in another state? Wouldn’t you want to know if your child had run up a huge utility bill across town?” Power wrote.
Small children, big problems
The ages and vulnerability of the victims plays a major role in why these thefts are on the rise.
As opposed to adults, who are more likely to immediately recognize if their identity has been compromised, children are ideal targets because, Power said, “Parents typically don’t monitor their children’s identities.”
Once a child’s identity has been lifted and tampered with, Power said the consequences can be far-reaching and devastating. “It could destroy or damage a child’s ability to win approval on student loans, acquire a mobile phone, obtain a job or secure a place to live.”
It’s important to note that the group of 42,232 children Power surveyed is not a representative sample; the identity-theft protection company Debix supplied Power with customer data for the study.
The parents can be the problem
Identity theft is often perpetrated not by some anonymous stranger acting under the cover of Web’s dark recesses, but by a child’s own parent or another close relative.
“Parents are in a unique position to steal their children’s identities, because they have such easy access to the children’s Social Security number and other personal information,” the identity theft monitoring firm Identity Hawk wrote.
Making matters worse, Identity Hawk wrote, “When victims do learn that their parents have run up debts, defaulted on them and ruined their credit, many of them don’t report the crime, due to family loyalty.”
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) said when a parent steals his or her own child’s identity, resolving the situation can be extremely difficult.
The ITRC “Identity Theft and Children” fact sheet explains: “Unfortunately, most law enforcement agencies hesitate to get involved, believing that this type of case falls into the jurisdiction of ‘family law.’ It does not.”
How to fix the problem
If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having a child whose identity has been stolen, experts at CNBC’s Consumer Nation blog urge you to file a formal complaint online with the Federal Trade Commission, or to call its identity theft hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT.
Also, watch for pre-approved credit-card offers addressed to your child, which often indicate that a credit history exists. Keep your computers up-to-date with the latest antivirus software to prevent online criminals from gaining access to your child’s personal information.
Consumer Nation urges victims to not request a credit report for their child; doing so "could unwittingly establish a credit report and open the door to thieves."
To make you and your child more difficult targets, it’s important to be vigilant about not giving your Social Security number to anyone unless it’s absolutely required.