MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to turn now to personal finance. We've been hearing a lot about identity theft in recent years. Law enforcement says it's one of the fastest growing crimes, and it can have serious repercussions. Victims of identity theft have often been denied credit they deserve and even jobs, not to mention the hours of time spent writing letters and making telephone calls to clean up the mess.
Here's another wrinkle: Children can also be the targets of identity thieves.According to the Federal Trade Commission, people 19 years and younger made up about 6 percent of the identity theft complaints last year. Sometimes these children are victimized for years before the crime is discovered.
We wanted to know how this can happen, and how to prevent it and resolve it, so we've called Adam Levin. He is chairman and founder of Identity Theft 911. That's one of a number of companies that have been founded to prevent and resolve identity theft issues. He's also the former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and so he's dealt with this issue. So thank you, Mr. Levin. Thanks so much for joining us.
ADAM LEVIN: Thanks for inviting me.
MARTIN: So people might have heard that 6 percent number, and say that doesn't sound like a big deal. So what's the cause for alarm?
LEVIN: Well, the cause for alarm is that 6 percent is the number you hear, but it's all about the number that you don't hear. And when about 71 percent of child-related identity theft occurs within the family - and this is based on a study conducted by the Identity Theft Assistance Center a couple years ago - because it's not reported, you really don't know how large the problem really is; 'cause the problem is, nobody wants to rat out a member of their family.
MARTIN: What are people using these children's identities for?
LEVIN: Pretty much everything - opening credit cards, getting mortgages, keeping utilities on, getting medical treatment; in some cases, committing a crime.
MARTIN: So we say it's stolen. This is, in fact, family members who are stealing or misappropriating the child's identity without the permission of the caregiver or guardian.
LEVIN: That's correct. And in many cases, it is the caregiver or the guardian that's responsible for the theft.
MARTIN: How would one go about discovering this? I mean, I take it that part of the problem here is that often - or sometimes - the theft is not discovered until years later, when the child tries to create a credit profile of his or her own, right?
LEVIN: That's correct.
MARTIN: So what do you do?
LEVIN: Well, it's a terrifying moment when you suddenly realize that your credit's been destroyed, especially by - most likely - somebody in your own family. You've got to file a police report. And this is where you run - tend to - a lot of problems, in terms of reporting of child identity theft, is because a lot of children and siblings don't wish to report the theft. It goes nowhere, unless you can figure out a way to convince the person who did steal your identity to step up and take care of the debt, which most of them have absolutely no desire to do.
So you've got to file a police report. That's the first step. Then you've got to talk to the fraud department of at least one of the credit reporting agencies, and then you'll get a fraud alert on your file. You've got to communicate with creditors. You've got to communicate with government agencies. It's a long, drawn-out process.
MARTIN: I'm kind of wondering, like, what would be the family circumstances that would allow somebody to have access to this kind of sensitive information, number one; and then where somebody would victimize a child - or you think people just aren't thinking about the long-term consequences; they just don't care, in the moment?
LEVIN: I think in many cases, they don't care in the moment. In many cases, they think it's not a big deal because they'll take care of it, and by the time the child gets old enough, they'll make sure the child's credit report looks solid. Or you have some people who start with one member of the family, and simply run through the entire family. It's like a shark tasting blood.
And I think this is one very important concept we have to disabuse ourself of - you can't prevent identity theft. So therefore, where you need to focus on it is, how do monitor a situation as quickly as possible to determine you're a victim of identity theft and then, what kind of damage-control program that you put in place.
MARTIN: So do you recommend that - now that the government makes credit reports available for free annually - do you recommend that part of your annual financial health check-up is to check your child's credit report as well? Is that something you recommend?
LEVIN: Oh, absolutely. The only problem is, if a child's below the age of 13, you really won't be able to go to annualcreditreport.com and find anything. So what happens is, most parents can now - at the moment - they can go to the three individual credit-reporting agencies. They have to present their child's name, date of birth, address, birth certificate and Social Security number.
And then they would have to provide evidence that they're in fact the parent or guardian, as well as a utility bill. And then the bureau will take a look. Now, one of the bureaus will create a file, and then suppress it to avoid there being a problem.
The other two reporting agencies take the position - they have to actually be presented with an identity theft. Then they will go in, correct the file, and then suppress the file until the child is age 18.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I understand that foster kids might be particularly vulnerable because their personal information is passed around. If you were a child who has been in that situation - you've been in foster care; you're about to have control of your own affairs - is there something that you recommend that people do as kind of a first step?
LEVIN: Well, first of all, you're right. They are very much at risk. Ten percent of all foster children become victims of child identity theft. And there is a law that was passed a couple years ago that requires now that before a child ages out, whatever the agency is that has supervisory authority over them has to run a credit report. And if they find something that is amiss, they have to make sure it's corrected before the child ages out.
MARTIN: And finally, this leads into a conversation we're going to have later in the program about social media and kids. A lot of people like posting pictures of their kids on social media these days. You know, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I wonder whether this plays a role in this by making pictures of kids more easy to acquire, particularly with their names and their ages and other identifying characteristics. Thoughts about that?
LEVIN: Oh, I totally agree that there is a very serious problem; that people have an unquenchable thirst to spew every possible piece of personal identifying information about their children all over the Internet, and that I caution parents - don't post every picture that you possibly have. Be careful about the geotagging that's with the picture that identifies when it was taken and where it was taken.
Don't talk about your child's pet or favorite color or favorite music because all of these, ultimately, become answers to security questions somewhere down the road. Parents have to have an adult moment, when it comes to this. And they should not be posting all of that information online. They are endangering their children.
MARTIN: Adam Levin is the chairman and founder of Identity Theft 911. He's also the former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, but he was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Adam Levin, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LEVIN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.