ID theft nothing to kid about

JOHN ANASTASI
7/29/2007 – The identities of children and teenagers — even those who don’t have credit cards — can still be swiped, leading consumer protection organizations to aim ID theft messages at young people.

“Young people have a lot of earning potential, so they can be issued more credit because they have more time to pay it back,” explained identity theft expert and LifeLock CEO Todd Davis. “They are not as aware of their credit and credit reports and the thieves know that. And they are using social networking sites, where they aren’t as cautious about sharing personal information.”

Davis said his Arizona-based company protects clients’ identity by installing fraud alerts with credit bureaus, monitoring client’ credit reports and removing their names from junk mail lists.

“Parents, once a quarter, should try to request their child’s credit report,” he said. “It should say the report does not exist [because the child doesn’t have credit].”

If a report exists, chances are someone obtained the child’s Social Security number and used it to obtain a credit card, he said.

“Teenagers are on the Internet all the time and they’re either receiving scams or they’re on blogs with their “friends’,” said Linda Foley, founder of the California-based nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. “We’ve been looking for pedophiles on the Internet for years, but it’s also a wonderful place to mine for information for identity theft.”

Foley’s organization recently devoted a section of its Web site — http://www.idtheftcenter.org — to teenagers. She said she couldn’t provide statistics about the number of children and teenagers victimized by ID theft because the thefts often go unreported or unnoticed until years after they occur. Anecdotally, the number appears to be rising, she said.

It’s not just the Internet teens need to worry about, said Bucks County Consumer Protection Director Mike Bannon. “There’s a lot of personal information lying around in dorm rooms and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle in and out of those rooms,” he said.

College students get bombarded with offers from credit card companies. If stolen, those offers can be used to open accounts in their names.

“You can opt out of getting mailed a lot of those offers — I’d say about 80 percent of them,” Bannon said. “Once you eliminate that, get a P.O. Box. That’s more secure than a mailbox. And don’t leave mail sitting in your mailbox. Don’t let it build up.”

Bannon and Foley both said companies, healthcare providers, banks and others should stop using Social Security numbers to identify customer accounts.

Foley recalled a case in which a college used students’ Social Security numbers as their ID numbers. The students had to provide those numbers to make purchases in the school cafeteria or borrow books from the library, where the information could be overheard or compiled by an unscrupulous employee for sale to a third party.

“We need to stop the use and misuse of it [Social Security numbers] as an identifier,” said Foley.

Davis countered that it doesn’t matter who knows your Social Security number as long as you have fraud alerts — like the ones his company provides. In fact, he lists his Social Security number — 457-55-5462 — in bold type at the top of his company’s Web site — http://www.lifelock.com.

By having the national credit bureaus place fraud alerts on customer accounts, the customer will receive a phone call whenever a request is made for a new credit card, a loan, or an increase in a credit line.

“Identity theft itself is a $50 billion per year industry,” he said. “The best way to curb it is to make them not want the information, so they’re not interested in stealing it.”

Consumers can install fraud alerts, get credit reports (once a year) and have their names cleared from junk mail lists, all for free. Davis said his two-year-old company will do all that for them for $10 a month.

Bannon said he’s “on the fence” about whether to recommend companies like LifeLock, since consumers can install the alerts themselves at no cost.

“If it helps you sleep at night [to have a professional do it] maybe it’s worth it,” said Bannon. “But, in general, I think it’s good for people to go through doing it [themselves]. It’s good for them to understand what they are doing.”

Davis said LifeLock clients are “paying for the convenience” and for a guarantee that if their identities are stolen despite the safeguards, LifeLock will reimburse them up to $1 million.

John Anastasi can be reached at 215-949-4170 and at janastasi@phillyBurbs.com.

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