Kids don't routinely check their credit history; parents should do so once a year, he said, through the annualcreditreport.com site. That is the only site authorized to provide the free yearly report. What you want to hear about your child is simple: no credit history.
Chappell warns parents about signs of possible trouble. A child getting more mail or any credit card offers is a definite red flag.
There are low-cost and no-cost fixes, usually — as long as you're not tallying up the time it takes. Chappell recently helped a family in which the son had been turned down for a job because, it turned out, for years his identity had been abused, primarily for employment purposes.
The longer the problem has existed, the more damage can be racked up. Most adults find out fairly quickly, but a kid's identity could be used for years without detection, according to the Federal Trade Commission. For either, it may be a complex mess to undo.
Whether the theft was for financial, criminal, medical or employment purposes, Chappell said getting organized is a must. Keep a journal. He suggests keeping everything in a file and maintaining a journal of all contacts you make trying to fix it. "On such and such a day, I talked to so and so. Had a bill collector contact me today." Document contacts and the action you take. Most banks and financial institutions won't help you without a police report, so provide the police with every document you have on it. Also, report it to the FTC at www.ftc.gov.
The FTC provides a step-by-step guide to unraveling identity theft's harm, as well as preventive steps such as opting-out of sharing your child's personal information whenever possible. It's important to know how shared information is used. Be aware, it said, that something as innocuous as a school directory may place a child at risk, depending on the information gathered.
ITAC's Ann Wallace emphasizes three questions to ask: Why do you need it, is there another way to identify my child and how will you protect the information?
The worst cases typically involve criminal acts committed in the child's name. To fix that may require hiring an attorney, Chappell said. "I've had families come to me that the first inkling they had was a debt warrant or a civil warrant showing up at the door. That can be traumatic. And cleaning up ruined credit's not fun, either."
Parents should contact credit issuers and plead the case, with documenting evidence. Go through the dispute process. "Then you're at the mercy of trying to get them to clean it up," he said.
If the parent or close relative committed fraud, it's that much worse. Kids are usually reluctant to file a report on their parents, no matter how egregious the act. It's one reason the number of cases turned over to police is small.
Placing a fraud alert on a child's credit can head off some future problems. Call up any of the three big credit agencies, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, and do that, then reapply it every three months. Those credit reporting agencies allow all consumers in the United States to freeze their credit.
Besides letting adults freeze their credit, Maryland allows parents to freeze a child's credit until he or she reaches legal age. The law, the first of its kind in the nation, also allows those with legal guardianship of incapacitated adults to apply a freeze, which could help seniors and those with disabilities, according to the legislator who sponsored the bill, Craig Zucker.
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