Identity theft is bad enough when you're an adult. Imagine what happens when a child's identity is stolen and his credit ruined before he is even old enough to get a driver's license.
Fortunately, for Florida's children, a new law can be used to protect them against identity theft. Parents and legal guardians can now, for a small fee, place a security freeze on a child's credit. Once a freeze is put on an account the credit reporting agency can't release any information without the consent of the account holder. This makes it nearly impossible for someone to use stolen information to to get credit, a loan or open charge accounts.
According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services more than 50,000 Florida children have their identities misused or stolen each year. Kids are targets because their credit records are clean and don't show up in fraud databases.
One difference between adult and child identity theft is that adult ID theft can often be traced to criminal enterprises: The information was stolen in a data breach or an older person was duped into revealing his or her Social Security number to a crook.
For children, the problem is often due to a trusted adult misusing the child's clean credit and Social Security number. Parents, guardians or other adult relatives will use the Social Security number to get electric service or cable, for example. Or, in one case, a teacher used students' Social Security numbers to open charge cards. In a California case the identity of a child in foster care was used to secure a $200,000 mortgage.
"Kids in foster care are more at risk than (kids) in the general population to have their identity stolen," said Alan Abramowitz, the executive director of Florida's Guardian ad Litem program, which advocates for children who have been abused and neglected. The personal information of children in foster care gets passed around as the kids move through the system. They are also at risk of having a parent use the child's personal information for credit purchases," Abramowitz said.
When these children age out of foster care, they may have trouble getting a job, renting an apartment, buying insurance or qualifying for a student loan because of the false negative information on their credit reports.
Lori Mann, a volunteer with the Guardian ad Litem program in Fort Myers, said four children she's worked with in the last eight years have had their identities stolen or credit compromised while in foster care. In the cases she recalled, the children's parents obtained credit cards using their children's Social Security numbers.
"I've got a kid now … and the people he is with found out he had thousands and thousands of (bad debt) on his credit that was not his," Mann said.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam spearheaded the legislation and his department has provided resources for protecting a child from identity theft. Among the tips:
• Keep birth certificates, Social Security cards and other documents in a safety deposit box or home safe.
• Use a shredder before discarding any documents that contain sensitive or personal information that could be used by a credit thief.
• Avoid giving out your child's Social Security number. Just because it's requested or printed on a form doesn't mean you have to give it. Ask why it's needed, how it will be used and if another form of identification can be substituted.
Information on how to request a credit freeze for a child can be found at FreshFromFlorida.com/ProtectYourChild.
The site gives the phone number and addresses for all three major credit reporting agencies. It also includes a template letter for consumers to use to request the credit freeze. The charge for a freeze is $10 but if the child's identity has already been stolen, the fee is waived.