Child identity theft: Why you should worry

July 11, 2011

Michelle Dennedy’s daughter Reilly is nine and already has had her identity stolen twice. Earlier this year Dennedy, who lives in California, learned that the most recent use of Reilly’s identity was to get utilities set up in Arizona.

She is part of a growing trend — stealing the identities of children. On July 12, the Federal Trade Commission is hosting a forum on child identity theft, pulling together a broad group of parents, lawyers, advocates and experts to discuss how to handle this disturbing crime.

“The criminals are focused on where is the softest the target and we’re handing them our kids,” said Dennedy, who was the chief privacy officer for Sun Microsystems and vice president for privacy at Oracle Corp. and started a website on the issue. “We have a whole generation of  kids being compromised.”

Children are, indeed, an easy target. They become victims without even knowing it.

“Child ID theft is a particularly troubling crime because it is often undetected for years,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

A child could become victimized at birth and not even learn of the situation until they apply for a student loan or have a background check done for an internship when they’re a teenager. A recent study found children’s identities are stolen at more than 50 times the rate of adults. There are several reasons why.

Until now, there was really no reason to check on your child’s credit report. After all, children don’t have credit histories. Social Security numbers have been issued in a somewhat predictable sequence, so identity thieves have taken to plucking newly minted numbers or those that would have been given out a couple of years ago and started using them to help people to acquire an identity with a clean slate — one not tainted by prior financial woes and one that could be used to gain employment in a country they did not legally enter.

Since the children don’t really need to use the numbers, the thieves who have assumed their identities begin establishing their own record with the stolen Social Security number.

In addition to identities stolen at random, Social Security numbers are hoisted by relatives and friends, or from hospitals, doctors’ offices and schools, said Anne Wallace, executive director of the Identity Theft Assistance Center.

“Obviously, these are very vulnerable victims,” she said.

One strategy to help cut down on the exposure of these numbers is to limit who sees them, Wallace said.

“You as a parent should think of your child’s personal information as cash,” she said. “Think about who you are giving it to and for what purpose.”

Steve Schwartz, executive vice president for identity theft protection and recovery firm Intersections Inc., said in most instances in which someone requests that number there is no real reason. “My question back is why. Why do you need it? Can I give you something else?”

There often are no obvious warning signs that your child’s identity is being used, he said, but pay particular note if credit card offers come in their name or collection agencies start to call.

Because a credit record legally can’t be established before someone is 18, technically you can’t really request a report on your child. You actually would have to check out whether someone is using their Social Security number specifically, typically using their own name rather than your child’s.

Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said the impact of these crimes are often beyond financial.

“I’ve been asked ‘What’s the harm to the child if they are only five?” The point is that fraud occurred, a crime took place that may impact that child in 12 years, she said. “Some people use the Social Security number of a child to work. Then when the parents submit their tax return it is denied because that ‘child’ is not deductible.”

Foley suggests not to overreact in advance of there being any suspicion. “Unfortunately, the truth will find you soon enough and in the case of child identity theft, the issues are far easier to remedy than in adult cases. A child is a minor therefore any contract signed (such as a credit card application) is invalid. There is no argument a creditor can make that changes the law.”

Dennedy noted that the company ID theft recovery company Debix Inc. is offering a free service, for a limited time, that allows parents to run their child’s number to see whether it is being used in circumstances that would never apply to a child, such as for employment.

She said the crime is particularly alarming when you consider who she is: Someone who has been working to protect such information professionally for more than a dozen years and is zealous of her children’s privacy.

“If this can happen to me, this can happen to anyone,” Dennedy said.

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Assign the children a Federal Passport as soon as they are in possession of a SSN for processing. But that answer is to easy! Regardless of a photo the proprietary data would be nearly impossible to steal.

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

If the government issued a ‘REAL’ Social Security Card with a photo and fingerprint and other bio-metric data and valid address then this problem and others like the illegal use of SSN’s by illegal aliens could not happen. Instead the Mongoons in Washington issue a crappy piece of paper which any high school kid could duplicate on a library printer and then wonder why there are so many peopke with false/stolen ID’s. And they won’t do the right thing because of the insanely stupid debate of it being a National ID Card as though that is a bad theng. Duh!? It already is a National ID Card, only a crappy one which is easily stolen. And a passport is a National ID Card. So the first commentor points out. And, jeez, isn’t the State Drivers License a de-facto National ID Card. Duh!

Posted by Eric93 | Report as abusive

Any Social Security Number MUST INCLUDE the DATE OF BIRTH.

In a fact ALL national numbers in Scandinavia includes the year & date of birth plus some special ‘control’ digits from 1947, so NO ONE can steal child’s ID or invent itself.

I didn’t know that numbers in USA was so funny undigested, that very stupid, really.

A ‘new idea’ about foto in the comments was very funny too (just think about how to use the ID number ‘with foto’ in the Internet – via webcam?), thanks for a good time, lol ))

Posted by volgot | Report as abusive

[…] according to a report on Reuters Money, if you receive credit card offers in your child’s name or collection calls for your child, […]

Posted by Child Identity Theft: Do I Really Need to Worry About It? « ID Guardian | Report as abusive

[…] Child identity theft used to be a rare crime, but that all changed with the invention of the Internet. As more and more children integrated the World Wide Web into their lives, thieves began to discover numerous methods of taking a child’s pristine identity for their own. According to the FTC, the number of reported cases of child identity theft had grown to 18,000 last year, with some independent research firms estimating that one out of every ten children in America has had their identity used by someone else. “The criminals are focused on where is the softest target and we’re handing them our kids,” says Michelle Dennedy, who was the chief privacy officer for Sun Microsystems. Her daughter is nine years old and has already had her identity stolen twice. […]

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[…] are 50 times more likely to have their identity stolen than adults. This is because the theft can go on for years without anyone noticing. People may not realize until the child tries to secure loans for college. […]

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