UF expert cautions parents to be aware of child identity theft

May 25, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Identity theft is not just for adults. Offenses against children are on the rise, and a University of Florida consumer education expert says the problem can actually be worse for younger victims.

“Many parents don’t realize that child identity theft exists, which means the crime often goes undetected for years,” said Mary Harrison, a professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Parents need to know how to recognize child identity theft because early discovery can greatly reduce the impact on victims,” she said. “If the crime is reported promptly, the thief has less time to run up debt, and authorities have a better chance of finding evidence.”

For children under 18, the number of identity theft complaints reported to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission increased by more than half between 2003 and 2004 – from about 6,400 cases to 9,800. At the same time, the percentage of child victims among all identity theft cases increased from 3 to 4 percent.

In some respects, identity thieves treat personal data from children and adults the same way, Harrison said. Most often, they use stolen information to conduct fraudulent financial transactions, though they sometimes use it to obtain government documents such as driver’s licenses, or give it to police when stopped or charged with a crime.

But when it comes to credit card fraud, child identity theft differs in an important respect: Thieves necessarily create new credit accounts for child victims, whereas most cases of adult identity theft involve existing accounts, she said. That can make the crime worse for child victims.

According to a 2003 FTC survey, victims of new account fraud spend four times as much time and almost five times as much money clearing their records compared with victims who had only existing accounts accessed. Victims of new account fraud are also far more likely to encounter other problems, such as denial of credit, loss of utility or phone service and criminal investigation.

Safeguarding a child’s identity requires many of the same precautions parents should take for themselves but with a few twists, Harrison said.

Preschool-age children are unlikely to be approached by scammers, so parents must bear the burden of protecting documents and other information, she said. Parents should avoid carrying their child’s Social Security card, and should complain if their child’s school uses Social Security numbers to identify students.

For older children, the popularity of personal computers in homes and schools creates a risk they will be victimized by Internet scams such as “phishing,” Harrison said.

“Even bright children who are very computer-savvy may not understand the dangers of being too free with their personal information,” she said.

Harrison recommends that parents monitor their children’s Internet use, talk to their kids about identity theft and tell them what information they should and should not share with others.

Parents should also monitor incoming mail for children of all ages because credit card offers or even debt collection notices can indicate credit activity is taking place already, said Linda Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, Calif.

“Getting a credit card offer addressed to your child does not necessarily mean there’s a problem,” Foley said. “If you have opened a bank account or a frequent flyer card in your child’s name, your child may receive mass-mailings from credit affiliates. Parents should call the company that has the child’s information to see if they’re on a marketing list.”

Receiving debt collection notices in your child’s name is a much more serious indication that your child’s information is being misused, and warrants checking the child’s credit report with the three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, she said.

Harrison said parents should consider checking their children’s credit reports every year, especially if they suspect their personal information has been compromised.

“Ordering an annual credit report for your child increases the likelihood you will uncover child identity theft in a timely fashion,” she said. “If no credit accounts have been established in your child’s name, the credit agencies will inform you that your child does not have a credit report.”

A new federal law will make free credit reports available to residents of Southeastern states on June 1. The law provides for a gradual roll-out of this benefit; West Coast consumers were the first to gain access.

Parents who discover evidence of child identity theft should immediately report fraudulent activity to one of the three major credit reporting agencies and ask that a fraud alert be placed on the child’s credit record, she said. Parents should also contact any creditors listed in the child’s credit report and file a police report.

Harrison said it is vital for parents of child victims to understand the seriousness of this crime and take action promptly.

“A person’s credit score is becoming so important now – not just for getting credit, but also for obtaining insurance, finding housing, and applying for jobs,” she said. “ID theft can have a very far-reaching impact.”

Further resources for victims of identity theft can be found at the ITRC’s Web site at http://www.idtheftcenter.org/index.shtml. Free annual credit reports can be ordered by phone at (877) 322-8228, or online at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/index.jsp.