Growing target for identity thieves: kids
Teenagers entering college or starting their first job may have a lot on their minds. But the possibility of falling prey to identity theft is probably not among them.Skip to next paragraph
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Just ask Zach Friesen. At age 7, his identity was stolen. A thief used his name - and his spotless credit record - to buy a $40,000 houseboat. Mr. Friesen wasn't aware of the crime until 10 years later, when he applied for his first job. Soon after, he learned that he had two names listed under his Social Security number and a sordid credit history.
"I had no idea what to do," recalls Friesen, a University of Colorado sophomore, who now travels around the country trying to educate other students about the risks of identity theft.
Increasingly, thieves are targeting those too young to file a tax return, get an auto loan, or even own a credit card. Of the more than 255,000 identity theft complaints filed with the US Federal Trade Commission in 2005, 5 percent involved people under age 18 - up from 3 percent in 2003 - making that demographic the fastest-growing target for identity thieves. College students and young adults ages 18 to 29 make up 29 percent of those filing complaints.
The under-29 segment is "rapidly growing," says Melodi Mosley Gates, director of information security for Qwest Communications in Denver. "It's a really underserved part of the population. Perhaps it's not as vocal an audience.... Young people often don't find out until later that it's happened to them."
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) in San Diego has had an "untold increase" in the number of calls and e-mails from 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds, says Linda Foley, the group's executive director. Part of the reason is that in 1989, the Social Security Administration implemented the "Enumeration at Birth" program, letting parents automatically register for an infant's Social Security number as part of the birth registry paperwork. The program has increased the number of registrations for infants. "Now they're reaching the age of using credit cards, getting loans, and they're saying 'Wait a minute ... someone's using my number,' " says Ms. Foley.
Sometimes that person is a parent, she says. A 19-year-old woman in California contacted the center after she was denied her first credit card because her mother and aunt had overdrawn a credit account in her name, according to Foley.
Friesen says he too has met students who have been victimized by their parents. "I've met students who say, 'I know it's happened to me; I've been getting my dad's phone bill in my name. Do I have to pay? How do I protect myself?' "
Young people are attractive to identity thieves, experts say, because they have a clean credit record and are less likely to check their credit history, allowing the theft to go undetected longer.
"People joke over cocktails about, 'Isn't it funny, my 5-year-old got a credit-card statement in the mail?' It's not funny," says Ms. Gates, adding that credit-card offers or other "unusual mail" sent to children under 18 should be a warning sign.