Preventing ID thieves from stealing innocence

Kids have become easy targets for ID thieves because of exposure offered by popular social networking sites on the Internet. In their naiveté, kids are also too often willing to give out information that can be used fraudulently.

Former Arkansas Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Jimmie Lou Fisher, now the consumer education instructor for the state’s attorney general, is a pioneer in child privacy issues, including the fight against child identity theft.

She says a child’s stolen Social Security number, used to open credit, may not be discovered until after the child turns 18 or attempts to open a credit account.

Case in point: In Pensacola, FL, a Girl Scout leader pleaded guilty to stealing her scouts’ personal information in a ruse to obtain $87,000 in illegal tax refunds.

The scout leader admitted asking parents to provide their children’s Social Security numbers for a medical release the scout leader claimed was required for field trips. The leader used the numbers to file 19 false tax returns, including four using her own kids’ Social Security Numbers.

And then there’s Zach Friesen who became the poster child for ID theft when at 17 he applied for a job and a school loan and discovered he was in debt for a $40,000 house boat. Someone stole his identity when he was only 7.

Now 21 and a political science major at the University of Colorado, Friesen works for the Qwest Communications’ Incredible Internet Program spreading the beware gospel to teens, parents, legislators and others who need to know about child ID theft.

Kids have become easy targets for ID thieves because of exposure offered by popular social networking sites on the Internet. In their naiveté, kids are also too often willing to give out information that can be used fraudulently.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 400,000 children have their IDs stolen each year and are perfect targets because they have clean credit histories. The crooks often can get away with the crime for years because kids and their parents seldom if ever check kids’ credit reports.

However, kids have the same protections adults can use to protect their identity.

It starts with using free annual access to a kid’s credit reports available through the federally-sanctioned Annual Credit Report.com.

Avoid offers from similarly sounding Web sites offering “free” credit reports. They typically come with mandatory fee-based services, say credit report monitoring.

Some child privacy advocates say the Social Security number assigned at birth is enough to trigger the creation of a credit report by one of big three credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and Transunion.

However, many kids won’t get a credit report, until, say, a parent’s credit card account is used to issue a card in the child’s name, a child co-signs for a auto or other loan, or perhaps if an older teen manages to secure a gas, retail or other merchant card. Youth employment, a rental application or other activities that warrant a credit check by a company could also generate an initial credit report.

If a child spends a lot of time online in chat rooms, social networking sites or other information gathering and sharing sites, parents checking for a credit report isn’t a bad idea, if only to determine a credit report doesn’t exist or that there is no suspicious activity.

The free-credit-report provision of the 2003 Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), which amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives anyone access to credit reports from the big three credit reporting agencies and others governed by federal regulations.

The provision is not for a single, free credit report a year, but one from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. That means parents can check for free three times a year, each time getting a different report from a different agency. Parents may need a birth certificate to prove the identity of a child to check their credit report.

Another tool is a no- or low-cost credit freeze, previously offered by law in three dozen states and now offered for a fee by the three credit reporting agencies.

The freeze placed on a credit report — via direct contact with each credit bureau — blocks requests for credit and may be particularly useful for kids who typically don’t have a need for credit until they are young adults.

Also, for kids who become ID theft victims and generate a police report, parents can, for free, call any one of the three credit bureaus and have a fraud alert placed on the credit report to prevent future infractions while sorting out the mess. In this instance, contacting just one bureau gets the fraud alert placed on your credit report at each of the three credit reporting bureaus.

For kids in general, Qwest Communications, the FTC, Arkansas’ Fisher and others suggest the follow child ID theft prevention measures:

• Insist that kids never provide personal information to strangers on or off line. That includes phone numbers, addresses, age, school, gender, hobbies or interests. Kids should always use a screen name, rather than their real name on social networking sites. Likewise their email address shouldn’t include their real name.

Posting personal photos isn’t a good idea. Nor is posting photos with identifying info including, say, a t-shirt emblazoned with your high school name or a photo with a your house and home address number in the background.

• Be sure you know who is receiving instant messages you send. Under the supervision of a parent, kids should exchange email addresses in person, rather than online.

• If something inappropriate happens online, kids should report it immediately to parents. Parents can also use CyberTipLine.com and report suspicious activity to the police.

• Kids and adults should always be alert to Internet scams and protect themselves and computers with software that thwarts spyware, spam and viruses.

• Parents should know kids’ passwords and screen names. They also should learn Internet lingo such as POS: parent over shoulder.

• Parents should monitor their kids’ online activity to be available should a site ask for personal information — like a last name or address — to make sure the child doesn’t provide the information.

• Parents shouldn’t ignore junk mail in a child’s name. Parents should react to kids getting credit cards promotions in the mail as a red flag. It’s time to pull the kid’s credit report.

• Parents should put magazine subscriptions in the parent’s name to keep the kids’ names off mailing lists.

• Don’t let kids carry their Social Security cards or numbers with them — nor should parents.
Keep cards and numbers in a safe place at home.

• Check for an earnings statement for your kids from the Social Security Administration. Unless your child has earned Social Security taxed income, there should be no earning associated with his Social Security number. You can sign up to have an annual Social Security earnings statement sent to you.

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