Identity theft: it could happen to you; it could also happen to your child.
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When an adult is targeted for identity theft, their livelihood is at risk. Their credit, home ownership chances and job opportunities can all be destroyed by fraudsters. But what happens when the victim is a child?
Children can lose it all before they even understand or have any money and credit, by having their identity stolen at a young age. The Federal Trade Commission is hosting a public hearing, "Stolen Futures: A Forum on Child Identity Theft," on July 12 to discuss the issue of child identity theft and how parents can protect against it. The event is open to the public and will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the FTC Conference Center in Washington, D.C.
Steve Schwartz, executive vice president at Consumer Services, Intersections Inc., said it is hard to tell how frequent of an occurrence child ID theft is because the information is about minors, so credit bureaus and card companies are reluctant to release details. Often children won't even know they have been victims of such fraud until after they turn 18, either when running a credit check or applying for a credit card.
"If a credit bureau knows a Social is attached to a minor, they don't release the information," Schwartz said. "If you're a parent, unless you are fairly sure something has happened, they won't release the information."
Anne Wallace, executive director of the Identity Theft Assistance Corporation and FTC hearing panelist, said while the frequency of such cases is less common than adult identity theft, it is harder to track and catch while it is actually occurring.
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"It's hard to know whether a child has been a victim because parents have no reason to check the child's credit history," Wallace said. "The other factor that complicates this is the nature of identity theft is often synthetic so the criminal may use the child's Social Security number and combine it with a different address or date of birth."
She said the most vulnerable group of children targeted by such fraud is those in foster care, because their information is circulated more widely through multiple handlers.
"A lot of people have these recordssocial service agencies, court systemsand there is a particular vulnerability there," Wallace said.
The key to keeping your childrens and your own identity safe is to treat your information as if it is cash, Wallace said. Many of the same tactics that adults use to protect themselves from identity theft apply to protecting children as well.
"When you are asked for your Social Security number, or your child's Social Security number, ask why they need it," she said. "In a lot of cases, the request might not be absolutely essential. Ask how it will be protected."
Wallace and Schwartz also said to speak to children about social media and exercise reasonable control over what your child is doing on the Internet.
Younger children are the easier targets, Schwartz said, because the older they are, the closer they are to being able to run their own credit report and apply for credit cards.
"The younger the better, because parents are less aware and they are less aware," he said. "Shredding is a key recommendation because you get a lot of information on your kids in the mail like investments and medical information. You must protect it the same way you would your own information."
Identity theft is devastating at any age, however when it is targeted at a child, the impact is much different, Wallace said.
"It is one of those experiences that clearly has a monetary impact, but also a major emotional impact," she said. "When the victim is a child, that emotional impact is more poignant and potent. The parent is devastated to find their child has debts in his or her name. It's just devastatingyou didn't expect it to happen, and you're faced with fixing the problem."