Child identity theft: How to protect your kids
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - Imagine someone stealing your child's identity. It happens to thousands of kids every year and most parents have no idea how to stop it. 13 Investigates shows you how to protect your children from this devastating crime, and it's free.
Christina Morog had a credit card before she learned how to ride a tricycle. According to her credit report, Morog opened the credit card account when she was one year old.
"I would never open a credit card when I was one," she said. "I didn't do it."
It turns out someone used Morog's social security number to get a CitiBank credit card in 1987. She discovered the problem almost two decades later when she asked for a copy of her credit report but, by then, it was too late. The credit card linked to her social security number had a $30,000 balance.
"I was sort of in shock. I've never even seen $30,000," Morog told 13 Investigates. "It's scary because you hear about people that can never get this stuff off their credit."
Morog's story is not uncommon.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were more than 34,000 incidents of childhood identity theft between 2005 and 2007, and the actual number of cases is likely much higher because the crime often goes undetected for years.
"Bad guys love child social security numbers because it's kind of a sleeper account," explained Steve Ely, president of consumer services for the Equifax credit bureau. "If you can get ahold of a child's social security number when they're two years old, you've got 14, 15, 16 years of being able to use that identity without potentially getting caught."
Four-year-old with a mortgage payment
Recent cases show why some unscrupulous adults target kids for their credit:
In January, prosecutors charged a Florida woman with stealing her 7-year-old daughter's identity to open a credit card account. The woman faced felony charges of grand theft and fraudulent use of personal information after her estranged husband discovered a maxed-out, overdue credit card had been opened in their daughter's name.
Earlier this year, police in California arrested a man for allegedly stealing the identity of a four-year-old child who died in 1984. Investigators from the San Bernardino County Disrict Attorney's office said the man used the deceased boy's identity to buy a home and a vehicle and to obtain several credit cards.
And last year near Chicago, a man was charged with felony identity theft after he allegedly created a fake social security card bearing the name and social security number of a four-year-old boy. Police say the man used the victim's information to obtain a truck, three jobs, gas and electrical service for his home, a credit card, unemployment benefits and over $60,000 in pay and services.
"That's scary and that's alarming," said Chrissy Shah, while playing with her three sons at Indianapolis' Holliday Park. Like most parents, Shah has never checked her kids' credit files. Because children are not supposed to have credit (and, therefore, no credit history and no credit file) most parents assume there is no reason to ask if a credit file exists.
According to Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, childhood identity theft is most often committed by parents, but teachers, coaches and babysitters have also been charged with the crime. Police say social security numbers (for both adults and children) should be provided only when absolutely necessary and should otherwise be closely protected.
Monitoring Your Kid's Credit is Free
But with thousands of cases of childhood identity theft each year, major credit bureaus say parents shouldn't make assumptions when it comes to their kids' credit. And monitoring your child's credit is free.
"We can let the parent know if indeed there is a credit file opened in that child's name," explained Ely. "If you were to discover that your 9-year-old has a credit file open, that would probably indicate that a bad guy has gotten ahold of their social security number and created a new identity .... If a file does exist, that's a pretty big red flag that there's something wrong there and you need to look into that."
Equifax, TransUnion and Experian all allow parents to request what's called a Minor Child Credit File Check. While the check-up is free, the credit bureaus do require parents to submit copied documentation such as a drivers license, social security card and/or birth certificate to verify identities before they will release credit file information.
If you request a file check for your kids, you'll then be notified with one of two responses: either your child has no credit file (that's good) or a credit file linked to your child's social security number already exists (that's trouble). If your child has a credit file, you will also be told what steps are needed to protect your child's credit and identity, and how to remove any fraudulent activity from your child's credit file.
In Morog's case, it took nearly two years to wipe her credit file clean.
"The faster you can catch it, the less amount of problems that are going to happen," she said. "For me, it took like eighteen years before I found out and then it feels like you're running around in circles to get it fixed."
Morog is now a professional financial planner who advises parents to keep an eye on their children's credit.
"It's so important to keep your kids' credit in good standing for their future, and if there's a problem, at least you can catch it when they're young," she said. "Everyone says ‘[identity theft] is not going to happen to me.' It can."
This spring, Indiana lawmakers passed a new law that stiffens penalties for childhood identity theft. The crime is now a felony punishable by two to eight years in prison.
Resources to check your child's credit:
7 Steps to Protect Your Child From Identity Theft (from Bankrate.com)