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Prevent child ID theft with a credit freeze? It's not always easy

Mother and daughter outdoors © iStock

Parents in 22 states have the right to freeze their children's credit to prevent identity theft. But that doesn't mean credit bureaus make it easy. And in other states, protecting your child can be a real fight:

  • Only 1 of the 3 credit bureaus, Equifax, allows parents from any state to set up a freeze for a minor child. Equifax will create a credit file if one doesn't already exist for a child and promptly suppress it -- the equivalent of the credit freeze adults can request.
  • Experian, on the other hand, limits freezes on minors' credit reports to the states that expressly require it and otherwise won't freeze a file unless it finds that one has already been created. If a minor has a credit file, though, then his or her identity likely has already been stolen, since minors aren't supposed to be given credit.
  • TransUnion, meanwhile, will create and suppress a credit file for a minor if there's evidence the child's identity has been stolen, but the bureau discourages parents from asking for such freezes as a precautionary measure.

Thieves can operate for years

Limits on credit freezes are a problem, because freezes are the most effective way to prevent a child's Social Security number from being used to open new credit accounts.

Otherwise, a criminal who snatches your child's Social Security can operate for years with impunity. Your family likely won't know an identity has been compromised until your child tries to open a bank account and gets turned down because of bad checks she didn't write, or applies for a credit card only to be rejected for a long history of not paying bills that weren't hers in the first place.

Signs of child ID theft

You may get tipped off to problems if your child starts receiving credit card solicitations or collections calls. Or you may have no clue at all that her identity's been stolen.

Warning signs of child ID theft

  • Your under-18 child gets calls from collection agencies.
  • Your child receives bills from credit card companies or medical providers.
  • Your child receives credit card offers.
  • Your child (or your family) is denied federal benefits because another account using that Social Security number is already receiving benefits.
  • The Social Security Administration or IRS requests confirmation that the child is employed, even though he or she has never had a job.
  • The IRS notifies the parent that his or her dependent child is listed on someone else's tax return.
  • Your child receives notice from the IRS that he or she owes taxes on income the child didn't earn.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

You can check your own credit reports for fraud online. You can't do that with a minor child, since children aren't supposed to have credit reports. And if they do -- because thieves have opened accounts in their names or using their Social Security numbers -- you likely wouldn't be able to answer the security questions based on those accounts that would give you access to their files.

When is the last time you checked your credit report? Get it for free at myBankrate.

Some states act

Given the risks involved, many states have passed laws requiring bureaus to freeze a child's credit at a parent's request. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, those states include Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Most of those state laws require credit bureaus to create a credit file if none exists, but 3 -- Illinois, Montana and Nebraska -- do not, says Heather Morton, the organization's program principal for fiscal affairs.

Easier said than done

Getting a freeze for a minor, even in the states that authorize it, isn't exactly easy. Parents have to write a letter requesting a freeze and include copies of their own driver's licenses or other identification along with copies of the child's birth certificate and Social Security card. (Each bureau has slightly different requirements, which are detailed on their sites.)

But the differing policies and state laws have led to consumer confusion and even uncertainty among identity theft experts about whether parents should request an investigation into their child's credit history if there's no evidence of a problem.

"We're still a little leery of advising parents to do an inquiry," since that alone may create a credit file, says Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "As soon as you start creating activity where none should exist, you could end up creating vulnerability."

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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