Somewhere between 10 million and 16 million Americans get “got” by fraudsters working the seams of identity-related crime every year. The methods are many and various. There are, of course, the familiar scams and frauds, but one harder to detect area of exploitation is child identity theft.
So why are children a target for identity thieves? It’s called “runway.” A child’s Social Security number is pristine. There is no reason for a minor to use it in connection with any financial or credit-related transaction before reaching the age of 18—when he or she then becomes legally responsible for any contract they sign. Consequently, there’s been no need for them, or their parents, to check their credit.
A pristine Social Security number in the hands of a skilled identity thief can be a ticket to truckloads of credit and significant cash. It holds the promise of an undisturbed romp for 15 years or more. Just think of all the bank accounts that could be opened; all the credit cards, personal loans, student loans, car loans and mortgages that could be secured; all the apartments that could be rented; all the smartphones, utilities and cable and Internet services that could be obtained; all the medical treatments, prescriptions and devices that could be purchased; all the tax refunds that could be mined; all the illegal jobs that could be obtained; and all the welfare or unemployment benefits that could be had with a gaggle of unblemished, unmonitored Social Security numbers and more than a decade of wide-open road?
Depending on the study, it is estimated that somewhere between 140,000 and 400,000 children become victims of identity theft every year. That truly is an estimate, because most children who become victims have no clue that they are being exploited. When they finally discover the trespass, they learn very quickly that there is no magic switch to make the pain go away. In fact, they are guilty until proven innocent.
Many have absolutely no idea how it happened, and it takes time to track this down and document everything. And while the situation is being investigated and (maybe) resolved, their credit has been decimated and their ability to participate in the economy is limited. Countless victims can’t get a loan, find someone to rent them an apartment, get a utility or cellphone turned on without a hefty deposit, open their mailbox without receiving some letter referencing a creditor they’ve never heard of, or get and keep a job in an already difficult job market, and they even, on occasion, get arrested for a crime they didn’t commit in a state where they have neither lived nor visited.
Take, for just one example, Cameron Noble.
The run-around was exquisite. That is, exquisitely painful. When Cameron Noble first tried to resolve his identity theft problem, he was told that there had been no crime, just an error. There had been no malfeasance. Noble was merely the victim of a keystroke error.
So how did he know a crime had happened? The 22-year-old Utah resident started receiving notices that his wages were being garnished for back payments on child support in California.
When Cameron was seven, his parents got the first inkling that something was amiss after receiving a notice from the IRS that their son was too old to qualify as a dependent on their joint tax return. After disputing the matter, they were told their son was a middle-aged, deadbeat dad who lived two states over in California. After some back and forth, the Nobles thought they had put the matter to rest. They had not, as was evidenced 15 years later when then the wage garnishment began.
When he tried to resolve the matter, Noble’s credit reports all came to his address, but with the thief’s name. In 2007, his tax refund was withheld to pay for the thief’s child support, and in 2008 he got a notice that he owed back taxes.
Understandably, he asked the Social Security Administration to issue him a new Social Security number, but they refused because they believed the explanation was, indeed, a keystroke error. After Noble enlisted help from resolution experts, the Social Security Administration finally agreed that his was a case of identity theft.
Often a parent (or guardian) is the first line of defense when the whisper of a problem surfaces: an unexplained call from a debt collector, a pre-approved credit card offer in their child’s name, a blocked federal or state tax return due to a previous filing in the same tax year using their child’s Social Security number, an application for their child’s first driver’s license denied due to accumulated tickets or reckless driving charges in another state (or because a valid driver’s license already exists in their name). Unfortunately, many parents miss these early warning signals. You don’t have to be one of them.
Adam Levin is chairman and founder of CyberScout and Credit.com, where this article originally appeared. It is an adapted excerpt from Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves, now available in bookstores.