My Mom Stole My Identity: What to Do When a Parent Steals Your Identity
Think most identity thieves are distant, shadowy online hackers? The truth is that your mom could steal your identity. Your dad could ruin your credit. In 2017, 1.22 million people became victims of fraud committed by someone they know, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
Axton Betz-Hamilton may know this problem better than anyone. Her expertise extends far beyond her work as assistant professor of consumer affairs at South Dakota State University.
When Betz-Hamilton was in fifth grade, her own mother stole her identity and racked up debts that would haunt her for years. Betz-Hamilton didn’t discover it until she was in college, and by the time she uncovered the depth and the source of the problem, she had a horrific credit rating.
That meant she was stuck with high loan interest and insurance rates and required deposits to get basic services like electricity and telephone.
How great is the risk?
According to a 2015 report from Carnegie Mellon University Cylab, children were 51 times more likely than adults to become victims of identity theft. Over 10% of the children in the Carnegie Mellon Cylab report had someone else using their Social Security number. The rate for adults was 0.2%.
Betz-Hamilton has studied this issue and has advice to prevent it happening to other children and help them recover if it does.
How Does Child Identity Theft Happen?
“Child identity theft happens when someone obtains a child’s personally identifiable information, such as their Social Security Number and birth date – without consent for the purpose of economic gain,” Betz-Hamilton said.
“This information can be obtained electronically through data breaches, through children sharing personal information on websites and smartphone apps, etc., but often is obtained by someone in close proximity to the child – such as a family member, family friend, school employee, or doctor’s office employee.”
After all, few victims are more helpless than children in this circumstance. Parents don’t have to work to steal their child’s identity. They already have the key information: name, address, birthdate and Social Security number.
Why do some parents do this? Financial hardship can make people desperate if they’ve exhausted legitimate avenues such as finding a better or second job or using credit to make major expenses manageable. Perhaps they can’t pay their bills and debt collectors keep calling. Or, maybe they’re just selfish and undisciplined. The desire to have a theater-quality, flat-screen TV or erase gambling debts cloud’s their judgment.
Parents who can no longer borrow on their own merits, have children with blank credit histories. Using the kids’ identities to run up bad debts eventually will cost the children dearly, but thieves – identity and otherwise – aren’t typically known for long-term thinking skills. Eventually, the child is going to apply for credit and be denied or be forced to accept high interest rates, and eventually is going to find out why.
This won’t make for the best holiday dinner conversation.
Are You A Victim? Check Your Free Credit Report
The quickest way to find out if someone is using your personal information for financial gain is to look at your credit report. It’s free and lets you know whether your identity has been stolen. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com, to request a free credit report, once every 12 months, from each of the major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
You will be asked questions to verify you’re who you claim to be. Once that’s established, you’ll be able to pull the report up online and print it out or have it mailed to you.
Recognizing Child Identity Theft
Obviously, young children can’t see the warning signs of financial fraud. It’s up to other adults in their life – the non-offending parent, a step-parent, grandparent – or teen-age or adult children to notice something is amiss.
Here’s what they should look for:
- Calls from collection agencies about unpaid bills in the child’s name.
- Credit cards or bills arriving at the home in the child’s name.
- The child receiving pre-approved credit card applications or government notices concerning taxes, benefits or traffic violations.
- The existence of a credit report in the child’s name.
- A parent who has struggled financially suddenly having lots of cash.
- Caller ID displaying an incoming call with the child’s name; a parent may have used the child’s information to get phone service.
- Getting turned down for government benefits for the child and you learn the benefit is being paid to another account using the child’s Social Security number.
- A letter from the IRS claiming the child didn’t pay income taxes.
- When the child’s first application for a credit card is rejected or fraudulent accounts appear the first time they check their credit report.
If you’re concerned that someone may have stolen your child’s identity, check the three major credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – to see if the child has a credit file. If a credit file exists, ask for a search of that file, then carefully take note of what turns up.
Reporting Child Identity Theft
Once you have evidence of child identity theft, file a police report, Betz-Hamilton says.
“This will be requested from financial institutions and other entities as you work to repair the damage left behind by an identity thief,” she said. “Without it, financial institutions and other entities will likely not consider you an identity theft victim.”
It can be difficult to call the law on your parents, but they committed a crime against you. It’s necessary. If you don’t, you’re likely not going to be able to clear up your credit.
Other steps include:
- Asking each credit bureau to remove information associated with the child’s name and Social Security number. You must provide the agencies with a copy of the Uniform Minor’s Status Declaration, which established the child is a minor.
- Contact businesses where your child’s information was misused. Ask them to close the accounts and note that the child’s identity was stolen.
- File a fraud report with the FTC online or by calling 877-438-4338.
- Create an Identity Theft Report at identitytheft.gov This is the government’s one-stop resource for identity theft victims.
- Freeze your credit to stop any additional new credit accounts from being opened in your name.
Credit Freezes and Fraud Alerts
Since 2018, the federal Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act allows parents and legal guardians to request a credit freeze on the children’s behalf. Betz-Hamilton recommends it.
It’s free, and it can protect them from identity theft and fraud by making it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts using your personal information. It’s free to freeze and unfreeze your credit file at the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies. To find contact information for placing a free credit freeze, visit IdentityTheft.gov/creditbureaucontacts.
If the credit reporting agencies don’t have a file on the child, they will create one so they can freeze it. That makes sure the child’s record is frozen and protected against identity theft and fraud. Parents must to show proof of their authority, like a birth certificate, to freeze or unfreeze the credit file for their child under 16.
Another step is to place a fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies that warn new and existing creditors that you suspect you’re an identity theft victim. Called an initial fraud alert, it lasts 90 days. If the identity theft is confirmed, it can be extended to seven years.
How to Freeze the Credit of a Child in Foster Care
Child welfare or probation agency representatives acting on behalf of a child in foster care can request a security freeze for that child. They must provide documentation showing that the child is in the agency’s care. Child welfare representatives who already work with consumer reporting agencies to review credit reports for youth under their care can use existing contacts to initiate security freezes.
Social workers at foster homes are required to order a credit report for any minor in their care, over the age of 16. They also must help them understand it as well as dispute any inaccuracies.
What Else Can Be Done?
Not all child identity theft comes at the hand of parents, so it’s important to protect your child’s identity. Keep a child’s personally identifiable information off of social media, including birth date, Betz-Hamilton says.
“When asked for their child’s personally identifiable information, parents should ask questions before providing the information,” she said. “Why is the information needed? How will it be used? How will it be securely stored? If the requestor does not have strong responses for these questions, it’s likely best to avoid providing the information.”
- Avoid sharing your child’s Social Security number whenever possible. If a school asks for your child’s Social Security number, ask to use a different identifier. Ask how the organization safeguards personal information.
- Keep documents and papers with the child’s personal information in a safe, secure place.
- Shred documents with your child’s personal information before throwing them away.
- Ask your child’s school about its directory information policy. Directories often include a lot of personal information. Who does the school share it with? You may choose to opt out.
- Take action if a data breach occurs at your child’s school. Contact the school for more information.
- If there is a problem, create an Identity Theft Report at identitytheft.gov. Call each credit bureau and ask them to remove information associated with your child’s name and Social Security number.
Unfortunately, child identify theft is a common crime – emphasis on the work crime. It needs to be reported to police in order to build your case for the credit bureaus. Fortunately, there are preventative measures that can be taken such as freezing a child’s credit or enabling a fraud alert. To find out how Betz-Hamilton dealt with her case of childhood identity theft, you can read her recently published book, “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity,” which is available on Amazon.
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