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Identity theft: How to protect your kids

Identity theft that targets children is rising. Here are five steps to protect your family.

By Alissa FigueroaCorrespondent / August 3, 2010

Identity theft reaches kids: Asst. US Attorney Linda Marshall ( left) and FBI agent Julia Jensen talk to a reporter July 22 outside the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Mo. The pair helped break a new ring of identity thieves targeting kids' Social Security numbers. Hundreds of online businesses are selling the numbers under another name to help people establish phony credit and run up huge debts.

Orlin Wagner/AP

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Identity theft has grown into a multibillion-dollar problem. And it’s not only adults who are targeted.

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At least 7 percent of the reported cases of identity theft target children. The number could actually be much higher, since many families don’t discover theft until a child applies for credit.

And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better, the Associated Press reports, as identity thieves steal children's dormant Social Security numbers and use them to create phony lines of credit and rack up debt, sometimes for years.

The scam, which has popped up only in the last year, is difficult to guard against, says Linda Foley, cofounder of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), an organization that offers counseling and resources to identity theft victims. The ITRC has seen a notable jump in the number of children identity-theft cases in the last year, reaching about 9 percent of its caseload this month.

“There’s no way to protect your child completely,” says Ms. Foley. That’s partly because these thieves are likely using sophisticated programs that mine for dormant numbers through school or doctor’s offices databases, which often require that children’s Social Security numbers be provided. And partly because tactics for selling the numbers are constantly evolving, making this kind of theft difficult to track.

Since credit issuers do not keep track of the age of Social Security number holders, they cannot alert families when a child's number is being used. That's something Foley's organization has been trying to change since 2005, and a protection she considers vital for preventing child identity theft on a large scale.

There is some advice that parents can follow, though, to reduce the risk of identity theft:

  1. Be cautious with your child’s Social Security number. Always ask why an organization needs the number and when possible, do not give it out. Be careful about which individuals, even friends and family, have access to your child’s number. Many identity thieves know their victims. Destroy extra documents that list your child’s number.
  2. Talk to your kids about identity theft. Teach children not to divulge their personal information on the telephone and online.
  3. Do not check your child’s credit report unless you have reason to believe there’s a problem. A minor should not have a report unless someone has applied for credit using that child’s Social Security number. To order reports unnecessarily can establish a credit report, opening a door to thieves, according to the ITRC.
  4. Watch for red flags. If you receive pre-approved credit card offers or calls from collection agencies, run a credit report on your child immediately to see if there has been fraud.
  5. Contact an identity theft specialist if you suspect a problem. There are several resources for families concerned with issues of identity theft. Visit the ITRC’s website for facts and information, or call its hotline at (888) 400-5530. You can also find information on the Federal Trade Commission’s identity-theft-prevention website.
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