NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - When North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein says the risks of identity theft apply to everyone, he means it.
North Carolina’s top law enforcement officer himself was put at risk last year, when his accounting firm experienced a security breach, and his tax returns were potentially compromised.
He and other clients’ social security numbers were put at risk — as were those of their children.
Stein says children and teens are at an enhanced risk of falling victim to identity theft, because unlike adults, they don’t regularly monitor their credit, and he says many parents don’t realize they should be doing it for them.
That can mean fraud taking place without a child or his or her parents ever knowing.
“The gravest concern for children, as it relates to identity theft, is it can go on for years before anyone even knows about it, because very rarely do people ever set up a credit card in their child’s name," Stein said.
"So, no one’s ever applied for credit so you don’t even know the people are taking credit out in your name.”
A child’s social security number can be compromised in a variety of ways, Stein explained.
Just like that of adults, a child’s information can be stolen if a company or entity experiences a security breach.
In 2018, the Identity Theft Resource Center estimates 447 million individual records were exposed, either by hackers or by accident, through a total of 1,244 data breaches.
Because they are one of the most common places a child’s social security number is used, the Federal Trade Commission cites breaches of healthcare systems as a common way children’s social security numbers are put at risk.
However, Stein said the most common way a child’s identity is stolen, is by someone he or she knows.
“Sadly, a lot of the identity theft of kids comes from loved ones, people who have access to their children’s information," he said. “Their life may have spiraled out of control, and so they exploit the identity, the social security number of their love ones.”
A recent example: A Cerro Gordo mother has been accused of and arrested for opening fraudulent credit card accounts in the names of her children.
According to a release from the Columbus County Sheriff’s Department, Bristol King, 34, is charged with twelve counts of unlawfully obtaining a credit card, after the victims filed a report with the sheriff’s office in June.
King allegedly opened the fraudulent accounts with Discover, Capital One and Care Credit, along with retailer credit card accounts with Walmart, Express, Maurice’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, American Eagle, Belk and Lowes.
Stein couldn’t comment on the specific case, but said the situation is a common one.
“[The perpetrator’s] life may have spiraled out of control, and so they exploit the identity, the social security number of their loved ones,” he said.
It isn’t just credit cards, either.
The FTC says perpetrators may also open fraudulent utility company accounts, because a child’s clean credit history can open doors otherwise closed.
Stein said a child’s identity being stolen can be rectified, but it isn’t easy.
He recommends filing reports with the FTC and his office, which can help parents through the process, but said it’s still takes a lot of time and effort.
“The problem with children is you can be a victim for many years, which means that there could be multiple accounts taken out in your name,” he said. "Now you never have to pay that money, you don’t owe the money, but you have to take the time to clean up that mess, and it can be incredibly cumbersome, and trying to get all that bad credit information off your record can be really challenging.”
However, with three credit bureaus, potentially multiple credit card companies and even the IRS to deal with, it can take a long time.
Additionally, Stein said, because a parent would be acting on the behalf of a minor, the parties will demand an additional level of verification, which can add to the time it takes to resolve the issue.
Stein said if your child begins receiving unsolicited offers for credit cards or loans, or collection notices from unfamiliar companies or the IRS, it’s a major red flag that his or her identity has been compromised.
If your child is being denied government benefits such as Medicaid, that can also be an indication someone has been using his or her Social Security number.
The only way to know for sure, he said, is to check your child’s credit report.
“Go once a year and just look at your children’s credit report, which you’re entitled to do for free," he said. “Then you can see and just reassure yourself that nobody’s taken out credit in their name.”
Stein recommends taking things one step further and putting a “freeze” on your child’s credit as well.
"It’s prudent to put on a security freeze for your kid, so that nobody, even if they get your Social Security number, your child’s social security number, they cannot succeeded in taking out credit in your child’s name because there’s a lock on that report,” he said.
While it’s somewhat cumbersome, he said, you only have to do it once, and your child’s credit will remain frozen until you unfreeze it just before they come of age, and he argues it’s well worth the effort.
"We as parents should do all that we can to protect our kids,” he said.