Don't ignore signs of possible child identity theft

Children are attractive targets for identity thieves.

Kids sure grow up fast these days. My 12-year-old son just started seventh grade. Days later he got his AARP card.

"Your membership has been reserved and is awaiting activation," AARP told him in a letter.

This was the second goofy solicitation my son had received in a few weeks. The first was from our health insurance offering him a Medicare planner.

I blew off that letter as a fluke, but when it was followed by the AARP card, I wondered if my son was getting on mailing lists because someone had stolen his identity and was applying for stuff — like credit cards — in his name.

Child identity theft isn't something that probably crosses the minds of most parents. But it happens, as children are attractive targets for identity thieves. A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab found children were victimized at a higher rate than adults.

"Identity thieves know kids have clean credit, so if they're stealing a child's credit, they're getting a clean credit to use," said Lisa Schifferle, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission.

That makes them appealing to even family members who can't qualify for credit on their own, said Peter Schoenrock, a senior vice president at Equifax Personal Solutions.

A study last year by Javelin Strategy & Research found 2.5 percent of U.S. households with children under age 18 experienced child identity theft.

A study by ID Analytics in 2011 found that 140,000 children are victims of identity theft annually.

Experts say the crime is underreported because children don't use credit and the problem may not come to light immediately. If it's not corrected, it can keep your son or daughter from getting a job, financial aid or car loan.

As with most identity theft, getting a child's Social Security number is the key to stealing their identity. So protect that number.

There are several signs your child's identity may have been stolen, including inappropriate mail for their age like the offers my son received. That also could include notices from the Internal Revenue Service about unpaid taxes, bills, or credit card applications.

"If you get something suspicious, don't ignore it," said Schoenrock, a Lehigh University graduate.

I didn't.

I called my insurance company, Highmark, to ask why it thought my son was my father's age.

I had to talk to four people but eventually got the answer. Highmark had his birth date entered incorrectly, which triggered the Medicare mailing. A representative fixed it, and another representative removed him from the mailing list.

AARP said it also would pull my son's name from the system. A rep told me AARP uses third-party mailing lists and that's likely how it got his information. I'm assuming there's a connection with Highmark. But I also wonder what other lists my son is on and what other kind of mail he'll be getting.

She also mentioned that she could relate to my experience, as she had received a solicitation from AARP when she was 14.

My concern about child identity theft was a false alarm, but you can't be too careful.

In addition to suspicious mail and phone calls, watch for problems when opening financial accounts or applying for government benefits or financial aid for your kids. If someone already has opened an account or is collecting benefits with their Social Security number, you may be denied.

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