Howard County forum educates on dangers of identity theft

You make concerted efforts to safeguard information from identity thieves — keeping bank card passwords concealed, buying online goods solely from secure websites and refusing to furnish personal information to anyone you don't know.

Adults and even teens have become accustomed to these precautions. Surely toddlers and preschoolers aren't vulnerable to such criminal activity.

But they are, according to Rebecca Bowman, administrator for the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs.

Bowman is among local and national officials who will take part in an Identity Theft Forum this Thursday at Howard High School in Ellicott City. She and others familiar with child identity theft say it's becoming a more frequent occurrence — and perpetrators can be anyone from a stranger to a family member.

Sponsored by the consumer affairs office, the forum will include a panel discussion with officials from the Federal Trade Commission, the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition and the Howard County Police Department.

The forum covers identity theft for people of all ages, but it comes on the eve of summer recess, when children have more free time to spend online and are likely to be involved in out-of-school programs. Some of those online experiences, Bowman said, can make children vulnerable to identity theft.

"One of the tips we give is that if somebody asks for personal information about your child, such as your Social Security number, you should ask, 'Why? Why do you need my child's Social Security number, and what are you going to do with that?' " Bowman said.

"It's unclear why some organizations do that; I guess it's a clear way to identify the child if something happened accidentally.

"But for the most part, there is no good reason to provide that information," she said. "When parents say, 'No, I'm not going to give you that information. You don't need that information,' " then schools, after-school programs and legitimate organizations will often rethink their policy."

According to a 2011 survey on child identity theft by Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab, children made up a little more than 10 percent of respondents who said someone else had used their Social Security numbers. The survey said that children's personal information had been used to purchase homes and automobiles, open credit card accounts and obtain driver's licenses. More than 300 persons victimized were under age 5, and the largest fraud committed, against a 16-year-old girl, totaled $725,000, the survey said.

Identity theft against children can create a credit report even when the child is too young to obtain a line of credit.

"That sounds like an odd thing, because children typically don't have credit reports," Bowman said. "Generally, they don't until they come of age and start needing to obtain credit. But one of the things thieves have been doing is getting the personal identities of children, which would include their Social Security numbers and dates of birth, and use it to establish a credit report.

"They'll take a child's name and date of birth and Social Security number and apply for credit, figuring out how to change the date of birth in order to set up a credit line for someone under the child's name," Bowman said.

"And then once they establish that credit, then they can change the address or whatever they need to so they can access a clean credit report."

In January, the General Assembly adopted the Maryland Child Identity Lock bill, which allows parents to freeze credit reports, prohibiting credit agencies from releasing information to creditors.

"Maryland is the first state in the nation to have established a child credit freeze law," said Lisa Weintraub Schifferle, an attorney for the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"Normally, credit reporting agencies won't let parents set up a credit freeze for a kid because there's no credit file or nothing to freeze. But Maryland law creates a dummy file that can be frozen until age 18, which would prevent anyone from opening credit in the child's name."

Howard County officials have encouraged parents to take advantage of the law, most notably during National Consumer Protection Week in March.

"Identity theft of minors is becoming more prevalent and is a problem because it often is not realized until the child is much older and needs to establish credit," said County Executive Ken Ulman in a statement related to Consumer Protection Week. "Fortunately the Maryland law makes it easy to protect our children."

Schifferle said she has heard instances of family members stealing children's identity.

"Normally, the parent would be the one helping the child clean it up," Schifferle said. "Sometimes family members may use a child's name to gain housing, credit or utilities if their own credit is bad."

Schifferle said the FTC advises parents to monitor their mail to ensure they are not receiving bills in their children's names, adding, "That would be a big red flag."

She added that children often make themselves vulnerable in similar ways to adults, responding to online solicitations, or sharing information on social media or peer-to-peer software.

Maryland statutes say a person convicted of perpetrating identity theft to obtain goods or services valued at less than $500 can face a penalty of up to 18 months in prison and fines up to $5,000. Conviction for stealing goods or services totaling $500 or greater via identity theft can carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.

Howard County Police Capt. Dan Coon, commander of the Northern District, said, "It is very important for people to understand the implications of this crime, how it could affect their daily lives and financial records as well as how to take steps to protect their personal information and reduce the likelihood that they will become a victim."

The Howard County Identity Theft Forum will be held June 13, at 7 p.m. at Howard High School, 8700 Old Annapolis Road, Ellicott City. Call 410-313-6420.

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