It's a thought more terrifying than any haunted house. Your pride-and-joy's Social Security number is stolen by scammers, who use it to find employment, pick out the latest iPhone and get credit. It can be years, if not decades, before anyone notices your child's ruined credit.
Child ID theft is getting a lot of attention from consumer groups and identity theft protection companies. But is it common enough for parents like me to add to my long list of worries about raising kids in a high-tech era?
The Federal Trade Commission says 8 percent of the ID theft complaints in 2010 involved children.
But experts who study the issue say that child ID theft is likely underreported, either because it's hard to detect, or because the adults responsible for the theft are parents or relatives, financially strapped and out of options or without a Social Security number of their own.
A report from identity theft protection company ID Analytics estimated that 142,000 children in the United States are identity fraud victims each year. The report was cited by the FTC at a child identity theft forum this summer. For perspective, there were 74.2 million kids ages 0 to 17 living in the U.S. last year, according to childstats.gov.
So why is this subject getting attention?
"It's not something we think parents should obsess about," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. Her organization is talking about the subject because there are simple steps parents can take to reduce the odds of child ID theft.
•Keeping your kids' Social Security numbers out of reach, even from extended family or friends.
•Lock Social Security cards and birth certificates in a secure location.
•Double-checking when a person or institution requests your child's Social Security number to be sure disclosure is necessary.
•Shred your documents.
•Be careful about what information you share online about your family, and be sure privacy protections are in place on Facebook and other social media sites.
I decided to write about this topic because misinformation is rampant online. Determining whether your child's identity has been compromised is not as easy as requesting a credit report at annualcreditreport.com. The system is just not set up to check for children's credit reports.
In fact, kids shouldn't have a credit file. "It is definitely rare and not the norm for minor children to have credit reports," confirmed Experian spokeswoman Susan Henson, although teens may have a file if they are added to a parent's credit card as an authorized user.
If a person is misusing a child's Social Security number, chances are they are using that number tied to a different name and birthdate, confusing the automated credit system that needs a matching SSN, name and birthdate to return a credit report.
The three credit bureaus will accept requests to check a child's record. However, data presented at the FTC forum showed very few fraud cases were detected simply by asking the credit bureaus if a child has a credit file.
And Gabby Beltran, spokeswoman for the Identity Theft Resource Center, says checking with the credit bureaus to see if your child has a credit file is "only recommended if you see red flags," she said.
Signs that a youngster's identity has been compromised are:
•Receiving credit card offers or collections calls in the child's name.
•Being denied a financial account or cell phone because of poor credit.
•Receiving documents from the IRS about jobs the child's never had.
•Parents being disqualified for public benefits because their child supposedly has an income.
I've also seen recommendations that parents thwart thieves by freezing their child's credit with the credit bureau. A credit freeze costs a few bucks and prevents lenders from opening new accounts unless the consumer "thaws" the credit file with a pin number. But that's not an option for the vast majority of kids, since bureaus can only freeze the credit of someone with an existing credit file.
Still concerned and want peace of mind? You can run your children's Social Security numbers through ChildScan, a free service offered by AllClear ID, an identity-theft monitoring service that makes most of its money selling identity checks to the customers of companies and institutions that experience a data breach. The service, which Beltran says the center has recommended to some worried parents, checks employment records and medical accounts in addition to credit records to make sure your child's identity is clean. Think twice before paying for an ID theft monitoring service, and triple check to see if that service includes child ID monitoring and what sources are checked.
Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Kara_McGuire