TESS VIGELAND: So you think you know all about identity theft. You watch for unusual charges on your credit card statements. You’ve stopped using your social security number so casually. Maybe you’ve signed up for one of those credit alert services.
But what about your kids? They have identities too.
Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports on a crime that’s easy as stealing from a baby.
AMY SCOTT: Think these innocent little tykes are too young to have bad credit? Think again.
LITTLE KID: Uh-oh.
By the time Zachary Friesen was 7 years old, he’d already bought a $40,000 houseboat. Or at least someone posing as him had. All it took was a name and social security number.
ZACHARY FRIESEN: Ten years down the road, I first found out about it trying to get into college.
Friesen is now a senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
FRIESEN: I was denied a student loan, I was denied a job. You know, I filled out the application, came back the next day and they said they couldn’t give me the job because I was $40,000 in debt.
The Federal Trade Commission says 5 percent of the identity theft complaints it received last year involved minors. That’s almost a quarter of a million complaints. And that’s just the people who called in. Children are ideal victims because their parents might not discover the crime for years.
Michelle Bartelheimer was lucky. She tried to open a savings account for her daughter. When she handed over the 3-year-old’s social security number . . .
MICHELLE BARETLHEIMER: The teller came back and told me that number was already in use by someone else.
So what kind of creep would steal a 3-year-old’s identity? Bartelheimer never found out.
Linda Foley is founder of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. She says more than half the calls her group receives involve family members. Maybe a father who wants to start over using his kid’s identity.
LINDA FOLEY: And a lot of them I think know the reality in the back of their head, which is, if I didn’t pay my own bills, I’m probably not gonna pay these bills either.
But it’s not that hard for strangers to access private information. Foley says if your child’s school or doctor asks for a social security number, make sure there’s a valid reason. And don’t carry your child’s social security card in your wallet — or your own card, for that matter.
Michelle Bartelheimer wonders if children should be assigned those dangerous nine digits at all.
BARTELHEIMER: As a mother, I’m required to get a social security card for my infant. But yet there’s no protection. It’s like handing ’em a loaded gun and saying, “Well, we hope that you can keep that safe till you know how to use it.”
Linda Foley’s group is working with Congress to change that. She says legislation in the works would provide credit bureaus with a list of social security numbers belonging to children under 18.
FOLEY: So when the credit issuer calls and says we’d like to verify an application for credit, what they’ll say is that social security number belongs to a minor.
Until then, Foley offers parents some advice. If unpaid bills or credit denials start arriving in your toddler’s name, you might want to order a credit report. It takes a lot of paperwork, but the credit bureaus will eventually erase any fraud from a minor’s credit history.
But Foley says don’t go willy-nilly requesting credit reports unless you’ve got good reason to suspect your child’s been a victim. If overdone, credit checks themselves can raise a red flag.
In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.