As a parent, you want to protect your child from all of life’s perils. While you might be on the lookout for bullies and strangers, fraud and identity theft might not be on your radar. But they should be.
“Risk is part of parenting,” says Trevor Buxton, certified fraud examiner and assistant vice president at PNC Bank. Fortunately, some threats can be avoided by taking precautions – and that includes identity theft.
Unfortunately, children are an easy target of credit fraud and identity theft. But by regularly checking if they have credit reports in their name, you can keep an eye out for suspicious activity and stop it before the problem gets out of hand.
The Growing Problem of Child Identity Theft
More than 1 million children were identity fraud victims in 2017, according to estimates in a 2018 study by Javelin Strategy & Research. Two-thirds of the victims were younger than 8.
Student Credit Cards.]
According to Buxton, identity theft that goes undetected can wreak havoc on your children’s credit and even leave them with massive debt before they’ve even reached voting age. He says that all identity thieves need is a Social Security number, which they can use along with a different name, address and birthday to apply for credit. This, Buxton says, is called a synthetic identity, which can often go undetected until a child turns 18. Using the synthetic identity, criminals can apply for accounts using your child’s personal information.
Buxton says one of the biggest warning signs that your child may be a victim of identity theft is if he or she receives offers in the mail for credit cards or loans. Other red flags include:
- Receiving notice from the IRS that your child owes unpaid taxes or that your child’s Social Security number was listed on another tax return.
- Receiving collection calls for a debt in your child’s name.
- Receiving bills for products or services in your child’s name that you didn’t order.
- Being declined for government benefits under your child’s Social Security number.
How to Check Your Child’s Credit Report
You should request your child’s credit report from each of the three credit bureaus if you suspect fraud or identity theft. Checking his or her credit report will require a manual search for files related to your child’s name or Social Security number. You may be required to furnish a birth or adoption certificate, Social Security card, your government-issued identification card or proof of address.
Children younger than 13 should not have a file with any of the three credit bureaus, according to Leslie Tayne, debt resolution attorney and founder and managing director of Tayne Law Group. If any of the credit bureaus do have a file on your child, and you didn’t add them as an authorized user on a credit card or make them a joint account holder, that’s a sure sign of suspicious activity.
Because each credit bureau collects and reports credit information independently, the process for requesting a minor’s report varies. Here’s how to check for your child’s credit report with each of the three major credit bureaus if your child is younger than 13:
Experian. There are two ways to find out if your child has a credit report with Experian. The first is to use Experian’s Child ID Scan service, which is free. You start by signing up for an Experian account and verifying your identity. The next step is to add your child’s personal information. Experian will perform a scan using your child’s Social Security number and find out if it has any information on file. Finally, you can view the Child ID Scan report securely via Experian’s website.
Alternatively, you can check for your child’s credit report by submitting a written request and supporting documents to Experian via mail or Experian’s site. You can find the official form on its website. You should include:
- A copy of your government-issued ID, such as a state ID card or driver’s license.
- A copy of a bank statement or utility bill for proof of address.
- A list of any previous addresses where you’ve lived in the past two years.
- A copy of your child’s birth certificate with his or her full name, including middle initial and suffix.
- A copy of your child’s Social Security card.
Equifax. To find out if your child has a credit report with Equifax and to request a copy, you’ll need to contact the Minor Child Department in writing. Equifax requires that you submit:
- A letter of explanation detailing why you believe your child’s personal information was obtained or used fraudulently.
- A copy of your child’s birth certificate.
- Documentation of your child’s Social Security number.
- A copy of your driver’s license or state-issued ID as proof of your current address.
And if you’re not the parent, you must submit documents showing you have the legal authority to act on behalf of the child. Equifax recommends enlarging copies of any items that have small print, such as your driver’s license, to prevent any delays in processing. If any of your photocopies are difficult to read, Equifax will ask you to resubmit your request with documents that are legible.
TransUnion. To check for a TransUnion credit report for your child, you can either email email@example.com or use its secure form to provide details about your request. However, TransUnion warns parents not to send sensitive account information via email, as it could fall into the wrong hands.
According to TransUnion, the more detailed the information you provide, the better, since it will allow for a more thorough investigation. It will only use the information you provide to conduct the investigation and will never include it in any return correspondence to you.
Once TransUnion completes the investigation, it will let you know if your child has a credit report. If so, TransUnion will request additional information from you so it can remedy the situation.
Checking the Credit of a Child Who Is 13 or Older
Children 13 and older can check their credit the same way adults do. By visiting AnnualCreditReport.com – the only website federally authorized to provide credit reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion for free – your child can enter his or her personal information to receive a copy of each report.
Keep in mind that you can only request a free copy of each credit report once every 12 months. Rather than requesting all three at once, many consumers find it helpful to spread requests out over the year. For example, they may pull their Experian report in January, their Equifax report in May and their TransUnion report in October to keep tabs on their credit throughout the year.
What to Do If You Encounter Fraud
“If you suspect suspicious activity, alert all three bureaus right away,” Tayne says. You may also want to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission.
One option is to place a freeze on your child’s credit. A credit freeze makes it impossible to open any new line of credit under your child’s name, unless the freeze is lifted.
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Similar to requesting your child’s credit report, you have to go to each bureau to initiate a freeze. The good news is, thanks to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, credit bureaus are required to provide credit freezes at no cost. They’re also required to implement the freeze by the following business day, as well as lift the freeze within one hour when requested over the phone or online. Parents can place a freeze on the credit files belonging to children younger than 16. Older teens can freeze their own credit.
Protecting Your Child’s Credit
In addition to monitoring your child’s credit reports, you can take a number of other precautions to protect his or her sensitive personal information.
- Keep your child’s Social Security card secure. Buxton says you should never carry your child’s Social Security card with you. Keep it, as well as your own card, in a safe place, such as a fireproof lock box or safe deposit box at the bank.
- Limit who has access to your child’s data. It’s easy for your child’s information to be stolen at school, the doctor’s office and other places where personally identifying information, like Social Security numbers, changes hands. If possible, opt out of providing any information that isn’t critical and use only the last four digits of your child’s Social Security number.
- Shred everything. Before discarding any documents that contain your child’s sensitive personal information, shred them, just as you would your own, says Buxton.
10 Ways to Avoid Credit Card Fraud
Protect your identity from thieves with these precautions.
According to Javelin’s 2018 Identity Fraud Report, released by the advisory firm Javelin Strategy & Research, identity fraud victims increased by 8 percent in 2017. In total, 16.7 million American consumers had their identity compromised last year, according to the report. As for financial losses, credit card crooks hauled in a hefty $16.8 billion last year. If you’re wondering how you can avoid being a target of credit card thieves in 2018, try the following expert-approved strategies.
Corrected on May 29, 2018: A previous version of this story misspelled Svehla’s name.
Set up transaction alerts.
“I’ve been a victim of credit card fraud a couple times,” says Jim Barron, who runs AcceleratedFI.com, an educational site for people interested in part-time work that’s based in Battle Creek, Michigan. “The best solution I found was to set up alerts for any transaction over $1, so basically every time a purchase is made on any of my cards, I instantly get a text message notification,” he says. Most of the alerts are for his own purchases, but if any transactions come through that aren’t his, he can quickly get them reversed, he says. A variety of banks and credit card issuers provide consumers with fraudulent activity alerts, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
Cut up old cards.
According to Cal Cook, a consumer finance investigator with ConsumerSafety.org, a recall and safety-related news website, it’s important to follow this time-tested advice. “If a thief steals your intact card, they can use it for fraud,” Cook says. If you think the odds of your old discarded credit card getting stolen are minimal, think again. Dumpster diving, a decades-old trend in which people climb into dumpsters and look for treasure among trash, is still prevalent. And the last thing you need is a crook finding one of your old credit cards.
Minimize the number of credit cards you carry.
“The more cards you own, the more likely you are to be victimized by credit card fraud,” Cook says. “This is especially the case when considering the specific type of fraud called ‘cracking cards.’ Criminals buy active card numbers on the dark web [a part of the web only accessible by certain software, often used by criminals] and print them to a fake new card. The more cards you have, the more likely some of your information is on the dark web.” The caveat: If you get rid of a lot of credit cards, you could hurt your credit score. So, if you do get rid of cards, ensure you’re generally carrying less than 30 percent of your available credit to avoid damaging your credit score.
Don’t become a co-signer.
Some people feel it’s necessary to co-sign for a credit card, Cook acknowledges. For instance, you may want to co-sign a card for your son or daughter who isn’t yet 21 and can’t get a credit card of their own. But before you take this step, you need to trust your family member implicitly and recognize that co-signing can expose you to identity theft, he says. “Many cases of fraud involve family members. If you use a co-signer, that person has the same card information that you do, and they can make purchases and deny them to you. You want to be the only person with the card information if at all possible,” he says.
Guard your online purchases.
“You need to make sure you shop carefully. Protect your financial information by only using secured wireless networks and websites. Unsecured wireless networks and sites leave you vulnerable to breaches,” says Jill Schlesinger, a New York-based business journalist, certified financial planner and senior ambassador for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. She also adds that if you’re going to save your credit card information at a retail site, “make sure you are creating strong, unique passwords. Security experts recommend a minimum of 14 characters for creating a secure password.”
Be careful about which Wi-Fi hot spots you use.
It isn’t enough to make sure the websites you use are safe. You also have to make sure your internet connection is protected. “Avoid Wi-Fi hot spots,” advises McCall Robison, who blogs for BestCompany.com, a company review site. “Unfortunately, Wi-Fi hot spots are hackers’ common place to steal your credit card information. Wi-Fi hot spots normally don’t have efficient security measures in place, so hackers use this vulnerability to easily hack into your phone’s information – your credit card information specifically,” Robison says. She suggests that you stay cognizant of your Wi-Fi settings. “Oftentimes, devices are automatically programmed to connect to free Wi-Fi when available.”
Take precautions before providing your credit card information over the phone.
The main question to ask yourself when you’re talking to a customer service representative over the phone is why he or she would need this information. “Numbers can be spoofed to make you think you got the right phone number. Always call them – do not let them call you,” says Ed Bides, information security officer for Florida Capital Bank in Jacksonville, Florida. The bottom line, according to Bides: “Never give card numbers over the phone unless you have verified the business and phone number.”
Use a prepaid card for online transactions.
If you’re worried about credit card fraud, Bides suggests getting a prepaid card for your online shopping. “If you know you’ll spend $500 for an item, get a prepaid card for that amount and use that card number. This will protect you if someone steals your number online.” Granted, Bides says that if your prepaid number is stolen, a thief could get some of your money, but at least it wouldn’t be as much as it might be if you had a credit card. You can find prepaid cards at numerous retail outlets, including supermarkets and major drug stores.
Be wary of fraudsters when traveling abroad.
“You’re especially vulnerable to attacks when you’re traveling, primarily because you’re in a different environment with unfamiliar risks,” says Reg Harnish, CEO of GreyCastle Security, a cybersecurity services provider headquartered in New York. Harnish suggests that you take cautionary measures when you’re traveling abroad. “When traveling internationally, consider using a burner – disposable – phone when going to places like China and Russia,” he says. “Always disable Bluetooth, wireless and other connections, and do your best to remove sensitive data from your devices before leaving the U.S.”
Stay cognizant of what you put on social media.
(Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images)
Keep in mind criminals may be looking for personal information on social media accounts. Be especially vigilant when it comes to “silly social media quizzes,” says Dona Svehla, senior vice president and chief lending officer of GTE Financial, a credit union in Tampa, Florida. “The information gathered is typically similar to that of traditional security questions such as what’s your favorite color, movie quote, first car you drove and so on,” she says. And those answers, of course, can be helpful for hackers who want to get into your credit card’s website and steal your information.