Dear Consumer Ed:
I really want to protect my children from identity theft. At what age should I check to see if they have a credit report and whether it contains any suspicious information?
Consumer Ed Says:
Most parents apply for their children's Social Security numbers (SSN) very soon after their children are born, and a SSN is all that's required to open most credit accounts. Therefore, it's never too early to take steps to protect your children from identity theft. You should contact each of the three credit reporting companies, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion, to request your children's credit reports so that you can examine them for fraudulent activity. When you contact each company, ask for a manual search of your children's files. The companies may require copies of the children's birth certificates, Social Security cards, your government-issued identification cards, and proof of address. You can contact the companies by visiting their websites: www.experian.com, www.equifax.com, and www.transunion.com.
In addition to getting your children's credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies, there are additional steps that you can take to protect your children from identity theft:
- Keep all documents that contain your children's personal information safely locked up.
- Avoid carrying your children's Social Security cards with you.
- Do not share your children's SSNs unless you know and trust the other party.
- If someone asks for your children's SSNs, ask why they want them, how they'll safeguard them, how long they'll keep them, and how they'll dispose of them. If you're not satisfied with the answers, do not share the numbers, and ask to use other identifiers.
- Before you share personal information on the internet, make sure you have a secure connection. A secure website has a lock icon in the address bar and a URL that begins with "https."
- Also, use strong passwords, and keep them private. If you use a password to sign into a website, log out of the site when you're finished.
- Use a computer with updated antivirus and firewall protection. Don't send any personal or financial information through an unsecured wireless connection in a public place.
- Limit the chances that your children's information will be stolen or misused at school by finding out who has access to your children's personal information. Also, read the notices that schools are required to send explaining your rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). That law protects the privacy of student education records, and gives you the right to opt out of the release of directory information to third parties, including other families.
- Safely dispose of personal information.
- Be alert to phishing scams, where criminals send an email, text, or pop-up message that looks like it's from a legitimate organization. A phishing message asks the recipient to click on a link or call a phone number, and to share personal or financial information.
- Share all of these safety tips with your children, especially if your children use the internet.
You should begin looking into the possibility that your children are victims of identity theft if you or your children have experienced any of the following warning signs:
- You or your children were turned down for government benefits because the benefits are being paid to another account using one of your children's SSNs;
- The Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), or some other government agency asks you to confirm that your children are employed, even though your children have never had jobs;
- You or your children received a notice from the IRS saying the children didn't pay income taxes, or that the children's SSNs were used on other tax returns; and/or
- You or your children received collection calls or bills for products or services you didn't purchase or receive.
If you know or suspect your children have been victims of identity theft, contact each of the three credit reporting agencies. Explain that your children are minors, and cannot legally enter into any type of contract. To prove that your children are minors, send the credit reporting agencies a completed copy of the Uniform Minor's Status Declaration (make sure you ask each company for its mailing address). Next, send a letter to each credit reporting company. Ask them to remove all accounts, account inquiries, and collection notices from the credit files associated with your children's names or personal information. It won't be a quick process, but it shouldn't take more than 90 days from the date you get an acknowledgment of your request.
For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0040-child-identity-theft.
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