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What to do when a family member steals a minor's identity

By

Opening Credits
Columnist Erica Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
My husband and I recently found out through a call from a collections agency that either the mother or grandmother of his 16-year-old son apparently opened an account with Verizon in his name. The collections agency says he owes $261.50. How could we go about getting the information from the credit agencies to see if there is any other fraudulent action under his name? The mother recently filed to try to regain custody of her four children, mostly due to the fact that child support and Supplemental Security Income for the autistic child were her only income. We would also like to know if it is possible to see if they tried to open anything in the other children's names. I have no problem with this person being charged with a crime in this case, but our lawyer advised us to just get the paperwork to use against her in court. -- Carrie

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Carrie,
Just to clarify relations, I presume that you are the boy's stepmother and your husband is the biological father. If this is the case, then he is lucky to have you as parental advocates. That you are even willing to go out on a limb and consider taking legal action against a family member is commendable. It can be an emotional decision filled with conflict, but when a crime impacts an innocent child, somebody needs to take a stand.

I'll begin with the matter of what to do about the $261.50 debt that someone racked up by opening a Verizon account in your son's name. He was a minor at the time, and minors are unable to enter into a financial and legal contract on their own. Therefore, he is not responsible for payment. The collection action needs to stop, and all evidence of it should be removed from his credit file.

With your help, have him contact the collection agency and point out his age on the date that service started. As his signature was not on any of the agreements, it may be helpful to first contact Verizon and have them pull the original paperwork to substantiate your claims. Proving that he is not liable for the bill will likely be time consuming, but it should be relatively simple to clear up. If they don't see the light, you can always send a cease-and-desist letter, which should end all communication from them.

To find out what other mess your son's mom or grandmother might have made of his credit, help him obtain his credit reports. Because he's a minor, he'll have to order them by mail and will need to provide extra identification documentation. You can help the other children who might have been affected get their reports this way too. Find out the steps you'll have to take in this step-by-step guide to checking your minor child's credit.

He'll need copies from each of the major credit reporting bureaus -- TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.

Once you have the reports, look at them closely. Begin in the trade-line section. This is where all open and closed credit accounts will be listed. If there are any accounts that he did not take out or any balances he didn't incur, he needs to dispute the information immediately. He can do this on the bureaus' websites.

After that, take a look at the inquiries section. This is where you will see evidence of both hard and soft credit pulls. A hard pull occurs when someone actively applies for credit.

To protect against further identity theft, it would be wise for your son and the other children to "freeze" their credit files. The so-called "credit freeze" is free and easy: Just contact one credit reporting bureau, and they'll notify the remaining two. The freeze will prevent people from opening new fraudulent loans and lines of credit. A creditor won't be able to access the credit history without permission from the correct individual. Without that information, they can't grant credit.

Too many people abdicate their power and allow criminals to get away with serious crimes. Not pressing charges sends a message that what happened wasn't so bad. So while I'm not giving you legal advice, I do suggest you speak with another attorney for a second opinion. Most important, follow your gut and listen to the wishes of the child who was victimized by his own (potentially corrupt) flesh and blood. 

See related: , 10 things you must know about identity theft, What is a credit freeze?, How to dispute credit report errors, Debt collection sample letters 

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Published: February 23, 2011


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