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All in the family: Parents stealing kids' identities

It's a crime that can go undetected for years, but seems to be on the rise

By Karen Kroll

Identity theft can be a horrible crime, no matter who's behind it. Victims may spend years trying to convince others -- creditors, potential employers and, at times, the police -- that they didn't run up the bills or commit the crimes to which their names are attached.

All in the family: Parents stealing kids' identitiesHowever, one type of identity theft that's particularly insidious is the theft of a child's identity by a parent. For starters, the crime may go undetected for years, until the child is old enough to apply for a job or loan. In the meantime, the parent may continue to destroy the child's credit record. The emotional wounds can be just as devastating, as the victims wonder how someone they trusted could so cavalierly abuse their relationship.

Last year, about 7 percent of the identity theft victims were age 19 or younger, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports. At the moment, it's difficult to find firm statistics on the portion of ID theft that occurs between a parent and child.

What to look for
However, "our sense is that it seems to have increased," says Steve Toporoff, an attorney with the FTC. Several factors likely are behind this, he adds. The economy, not surprisingly, is one. Parents struggling through a long period of unemployment may damage their own credit and use their child's as a replacement. Some parents use their childrens' identities to provide the kids themselves with pricey clothes and other gear. They figure the child can sort it out when he or she turns 18, says Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC).

Unfortunately, it's not all that difficult for parents to steal their children's identities. After all, they're the ones who apply for a newborn's Social Security number. The ITRC lists several signs that may indicate a child's identity has been stolen by a parent or relative with access to the child's Social Security number. Among them:

  • Credit card offers come in the child's name or nickname, even though the child doesn't have a bank account.
  • The parent or relative struggles financially, then suddenly appears to have money.
  • The parent already has a history of misusing others' identities.
  • The parent and child live apart, yet the child's name appears on the parent's caller ID system.

How to verify
If you suspect that a minor's identity has been compromised by a parent or other relative, several steps are in order. Contact the credit reporting agencies to see whether your child actually has a credit report. This will need to be done in writing, since the information the credit reporting agency will have on file probably won't match the information you submit. Say your estranged spouse who lives several states away stole your child's identification, while your child lives with you. The address on file at the credit reporting agency likely will differ from your child's actual address.

If you have evidence, you have something solid the police can follow up on. Otherwise, it becomes, 'he said, she said.'

-- Linda Foley
Identity Theft Resource Center

The ITRC has a template on its website that can be used for this purpose. According to Foley, it has been approved by the three major credit reporting agencies, which are Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

The request should include copies of the child's birth certificate and Social Security card, as well as the parent's or guardian's state identification card, such as a driver's license.

If no credit report exists, that's actually as it should be. Unless the child has credit, the lack of a credit history is perfectly appropriate, Toporoff says.

A word of caution: If the child doesn't have a credit report, it can be tempting to repeatedly check back with the agencies, just to make sure that his or her record remains clean. However, the requests in themselves may trigger the creation of a report, increasing the possibility of identity theft, Foley says. Instead -- barring future incidents that lead you to believe someone is misusing the child's credit -- you probably can wait several years before checking again, she adds.

Ways to fix
If a credit history exists but shouldn't, you'll need to gather evidence that shows how the child's credit has been misused, Foley says. An example would be a copy of a bill with the child's name on it. "If you have evidence, you have something solid the police can follow up on. Otherwise, it becomes, 'He said, she said.'"

This evidence can be used to obtain a police report, which in turn can be helpful in correcting errors on a credit report, says Toporoff. For instance, a police report is necessary to take advantage of the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act that permit you to block fraudulent debts from appearing on the child's credit report.

Once you have the credit report, you'll also want to begin clearing the child's record, says attorney Mari Frank, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Recovering From Identity Theft." This can be a painstaking process of contacting the creditors with the information needed to show that your child's identity had been used to complete the transactions.

To prevent further transactions, you may want to request that a credit freeze be placed on your child's account, Frank says. Of course, you'll need to remember to remove the freeze when the child turns 18 or needs to obtain credit.

What about changing your child's Social Security number? The Social Security Administration will change an individual's number only if its misuse is causing ongoing, serious problems, says spokesman Mark Lassiter. He also cautions that changing the number creates a new set of challenges, even for a child. For instance, if the child is old enough to have a driver's license, tax records or bank accounts under the old number, those will need to be updated as well. Just changing the number with the Social Security Administration won't automatically update these other records.

The emotional cost
Along with the paperwork and phone calls required to set the records straight, an older child whose identity has been stolen by a parent may need help working through his or her emotions. "Get support from a victim adviser who has a history of working with these cases," Foley recommends. The adviser also can help the child think through any action that he or she may be considering against the parent. The adviser might be a spiritual leader, school counselor, therapist or trusted family member. In addition, the ITRC has child identity theft specialists on staff that a child can call and talk to.

While filing a police report is never to be taken lightly, particularly when the victim knows the criminal, it's a step more children who have had their identity stolen by a parent or relative are taking, Foley says. "The police report is the quintessential paper that they (victims) have sworn under penalty of perjury is correct." Conversely, if a decision is made within the family simply to pay off the amounts owed, others viewing the report will assume the victim actually was responsible for the debt.

If there is one sort-of bright side to all this, it's that families appear to be more supportive of children who are victims of identity theft by a parent or relative. Until a few years ago, these kids often were advised to keep quiet, Foley says. Today, "child identity theft is out of the closet."

See related: Adult children increasingly co-sign for parents' loans, Protecting your children from identity theft, Step-by-step guide to checking your child's credit, Identity theft sample letters, 6 tips to protect yourself from ID theft

Published: October 5, 2010


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