SALT LAKE CITY — When the young man applied for a small loan to help with college costs and was turned down, the reason surprised him: He'd purchased a home, it seemed, when he was just 7 years old and he hadn't made all the payments. He had other debt, too, that made him a poor credit risk.
Identity theft is like that, torpedoing plans and shaking financial futures. In the case of kids — a demographic that's increasingly targeted by thieves — it could be more than a decade before the crime comes to light. That's a lot of time to do damage, experts say.
Some sources say the numbers are relatively small — about 2.4 percent of U.S. households where children under age 18 are victims of identity fraud, according to the Identity Theft Assistance Center, which is supported by financial services companies that offer the help as a benefit to their customers. Other experts put the number even higher, including CBS Baltimore, which said one in 10 kids have had their Social Security numbers compromised, compared to one in 500 adults.
For a couple of reasons, the numbers are to some degree guesstimates, experts say. First, the crime often goes undetected. It is also an unhappy fact, says ITAC, that those taking advantage of a child's personal information may be a close relative or friend — even, in many cases, a parent. Researchers call it "friendly fraud" and it accounts for 27 percent of cases.
If adults are not looking out for a child, identity theft may not be discovered until after he turns 18. It is a crime that is disproportionately hard on children from lower-income households, who are more often targeted than more wealthy peers.
Virginia State Police Lt. Robert P. Chappell Jr. of Roanoke, Va., literally wrote the book on the topic. As an officer, he'd seen a growing problem with child identity theft and he'd read articles about thousands of children in foster care who had been victimized by child ID theft. They are especially vulnerable because their personal information moves with them from home to home. When he went looking for more information, Chappell couldn't find much written on the subject at that time.
His "Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know" includes the facts from a law enforcement perspective, as well as recommendations.
"It's a predatory crime that affects families and I know how to recognize it and the steps to prevent it, as well as how to deal with the emotional aspects of it," Chappell said in a phone interview. His website, childidtheft.org, offers tips.
Adding 'em up
Chappell's astonished by the sheer number of people and places that have been entrusted with key identifying information about children, from schools to clinics. A Social Security number and date of birth are the most-sought bits of data. Military families move every few years and may leave a trail of schools, doctors and others who have collected information an identity thief craves. People sitting idly in a doctor's waiting room or near the pharmacy may glean some of the information by simply listening.
He tells people in those settings to write down their information, instead of speaking it. And whether you're sharing data with others, it's appropriate to ask how they secure data. Is it cross-cut shredded? Put into a secure computer system and the paper trail burned?
While he was researching his book, he came across the story of a hospital worker in Louisiana who stole 400 people's identities. And he's often a resource to parents trying to help older teens or young adults straighten out the wreckage of identity theft, some of it old news that was never reported.
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