The Pretenders

Imagine that your precious 10-year-old daughter has half a dozen credit cards with charges totaling more than $30,000. Add to the equation that she’s been approved for a $25,000 loan. In fact, she has been in debt since she was a kindergartener. You think it’s impossible, yet this is the case among a growing number of children who have had their Social Security numbers stolen and used by perpetrators to apply for credit.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, last year nearly 11,000 reports were filed for people under the age of 18 who discovered unpaid bills, credit cards, and loan applications in their name. Child identity theft can be more damaging than adult identity theft because it often goes unnoticed for years. “A child normally doesn’t find out [that something is wrong] until they are 18 years old and starting to apply for credit. There is literally an 18-year window that a thief could be using [your child’s] identity,” says Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center (

It is not always a stranger pretending to be your child. Relatives are involved in more than half of child identity theft cases reported in the U.S., according to the ITRC. Thieves target children because they have clean credit records, says Jim Wright, managing director of programs and youth initiatives for the National Crime Prevention Council (

So, what can you do to safeguard your child’s good name? Here are some identity theft prevention tips and steps to take if this crime has already hit close to home.
Pay attention to the mail. If your child gets credit card offers, utility bills, or collection notices, don’t dismiss them and throw them away. Contact those companies immediately.

Limit the amount of personal information your child posts on social networking sites such as MySpace. “A lot of times, kids are putting up way too much information. It creates an opportunity for a would-be crook to start engaging a child and getting [sensitive] information,” says Brian Koerner, security expert and author of Windows Vista Security for Dummies (For Dummies; $24.99).

Opt out of mailing lists. If you open a bank account in your child’s name, opt out of special offers. “The code printed on the preapproval credit card form links back to the name and Social Security number of the person that has been preapproved, which you can see on your credit report. What thieves do is just fill it out, change the address, and send it in,” says Foley.

Get a lockbox for important papers. File pertinent information discreetly since the most common child identity thief is a relative or family friend–those who frequently visit your home.
Don’t carry your child’s Social Security card. Memorize the number. Moreover, when your child visits a doctor’s office or enrolls in school, ask if it is necessary to provide his or her Social Security number. If not, do not disclose it.

The following situations are a sure sign of danger:

Your child has a credit report. Children should not have a