Targeting children: the young victims of identity theft
From toddlers to teenagers, hundreds of thousands of children are now victims of identity theft and, according to the Federal Trade Commission, most of their parents don't even realize it.
Angie Brackin didn't know anything was wrong until she got a phone call asking why her son, Adam, hadn't reported thousands of dollars in income from working in a factory.
"I said, 'Well, that's impossible. Adam is in school today and he's only in fourth grade,'" Brackin said.
Turns out someone had stolen Adam's social security number just months after he was born.
Documents show that someone is 38-year-old Marco Lopez. Over the past 14 years, Lopez has used Adam's social security number to rent homes and apartments, to secure jobs, to title eight different cars, and to run up thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
A thorough credit check of Adam's social security number reveals dozens of entries under Marco Lopez – and almost no mention of Adam at all.
"It feels like I'm not even Adam anymore," he tells 13 Investigates. "It kind of scares me because it might affect my future."
The freshman at Covenant Christian High School and his mother have now spent several years trying to put an end to the identity theft, but Lopez continues to use Adam's personal information. He recently got jobs at a pizza shop and at a temporary staffing agency by providing Adam's social security number.
"This is a crime. It's illegal. It's stealing," Angie Brackin said. "I don't know how he got Adam's social security number, and who knows how much damage he's doing."
Adam is not alone.
Thousands of victims
An estimated 140,000 identity frauds are committed against minors each year, according to FTC identity protection specialist Steve Toporoff.
"Recent studies suggest child identity theft is more prevalent than even identity theft against adults," said Toporoff, an attorney in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Children are being targeted because their credit history is nonexistent. That makes them very attractive to organized crime and other thieves."
Axton Betz was a young girl when someone stole her social security number, and she is still dealing with the aftermath two decades later.
"I was in fifth grade. I was 11 years old, and I had no idea anything was wrong," she said.
Axton realized she had a problem when she got to college and started getting court summonses and lawsuits from collection agencies. The debt collectors claimed Axton had run up huge credit card bills when she was 13 years old.
"Back then I was just a kid growing up in the Indiana countryside. I didn't think about money and credit. I didn't even have a credit card," Axton recalls.
Now, after years of trying to clean up her credit, she still gets collection calls and Axton is paying off a car loan with an 18.23% interest rate. It's the only loan she could get after someone stole her identity and trashed her credit – long before Axton was old enough to drive a car.
Officials at the Federal Trade Commission say child identity theft has only gotten worse since 13 Investigates first reported on the issue several years ago.
While many cases are committed by parents or relatives of the victims, others are perpetrated by strangers who obtain kids' social security numbers through data breaches. Police say social security numbers (for both adults and children) should be provided only when absolutely necessary and should otherwise be closely protected.
"Child identity theft really is a hidden crime," Toporoff said. "In many instances, parents would have no idea and no reason to suspect their child has been a victim until many years later when the child applies for credit. Most parents don't know what to do and children are significantly harmed."
Check your kid's credit for free
That's why you should take action now.
The FTC recommends you contact a credit bureau to see if your child has a credit file – a primary warning sign of child identity theft.
"For a child, there should be no credit file because, as a minor, you can't apply for credit," explained Steve Katz, senior director of consumer affairs at TransUnion credit bureau. "So if these [credit] accounts exist, they've most likely been established by a third party whose using that child's information, and they shouldn't be."
The nation's three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian. and TransUnion – all offer what's called a "minor credit file check" for you to investigate the status of your child's credit. The credit bureaus will conduct a file check for free. (Details and instructions below.)
"It's a very easy process. You simply go to our website … there's a secure form you can fill out and send to us. We'll respond to you very quickly if we find a credit file in your child's name and we'll provide you with the next steps," Katz said. "We have the ability to go in there and clean up that file so, in the future, any negative items will not impact the child."
TransUnion says its minor credit file checks reveal credit files on approximately 4% of children. With approximately 75 million children (ages 0-17) in the United States, that percentage represents approximately 1.5 million kids who may have improper credit activity – and possible identity theft – linked to their social security numbers. The FTC says it is important to identify potential problems early.
"Before a child reaches the age of 16, parents definitely should see if there is a credit file on their children," Toporoff recommends."That will give some time to remedy problems and to clean up the child's credit file so, by the time they reach 18, they will have a clean credit history going forward."
Struggling for justice
While the credit bureaus can help make things right, it's very tough to catch the people who've done wrong.
Axton says she has no idea who stole her identity, and tracking down the man who stole Adam's social security number has also been quite a challenge.
13 Investigates visited nine homes and apartments linked to Adam's social security number and listed as home addresses for Marco Lopez. WTHR did not find Marco living at any of those addresses. His former employers do not know Lopez's whereabouts, and messages left at his most recent phone numbers have gone unanswered.
Angie Brackin says police have not been willing to help.
"I have tried to climb every ladder, every avenue, and I have just really struggled to get anyone to help me at all with this," she said.
While WTHR continues to search for Marco, the Brackins continue to search for answers, trying to understand how someone took control of Adam's identity.
"It's happening right now," his mom said. "It's scary and it's hurtful. I don't want any other children violated."
Resources to check your child's credit file:
TransUnion online Child Identity Theft Inquiry Form (This allows you to apply online)
Experian info/instructions for Minor Child Credit Check (You must print a form and send it)