An estimated 140,000 children's identities are stolen every year
As bad credit goes, Riley's record certainly wasn't the worst out there. She'd racked up some late payments on her department store credit card. And she had some unpaid utility bills that eventually got turned over to debt collectors.
The real problem• Riley was only 8 years old.
Unbeknown to the San Francisco Bay Area third-grader and her parents, two people had stolen her Social Security number and used it to open accounts more than a decade before she was born. After she was assigned the Social Security number, those accounts -- now delinquent -- attached to her name.
Riley's case is just one example of a stealthy, silent problem known as children's identity theft. It often goes undetected for years, until a child turns 18 and applies for college, a student loan, an apartment rental, even a job. By then, years of financial damage to a child's credit history may have occurred.
"It's difficult to detect and difficult to prevent," said Joanne McNabb, chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection. "It's the late discovery that makes (child identity theft) so attractive."
An estimated 140,000 children's identities are stolen every year, according to a 2010 study by ID Analytics, a San Diego consumer risk management firm. Overall, more than 11.6 million American adults were victims of identity fraud last year, a 13 percent increase over 2010, according to a recent Javelin Strategy & Research report.
"Parents always think, 'My kid has $8 in his piggy bank. What could possibly go wrong?' " said Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer with McAfee Inc., a computer security company. "We don't think that someone could steal their identity and use it to buy a gun license, steal health records, acquire credit cards, take out large mortgages."
Dennedy should know. Riley, the third-grader, is her daughter.
As an online privacy professional, Dennedy notes it's particularly ironic that her own child's identity was pilfered. "I was completely clueless about this. I change my passwords, my kids don't go online, and I teach cyber-security. I thought I was covered."
The perpetrators can be anyone: criminals lurking online, illegal immigrants needing a valid ID or even what Dennedy calls "friendly fire": parents with ruined credit who steal their own kids' Social Security numbers to open accounts. The latter, she said, is "a sad practice, but it's more common than you think."
Sometimes, it can be an honest error. Dennedy recalls the case of a 4-year-old whose parents discovered he had a lengthy credit record going back 40 years. The culprit• An elderly woman who had unknowingly transposed part of her Social Security number and used it for decades, for mortgages, credit cards and other financial accounts.
What are possible signs your child might be an identity theft target• Debt collection calls to your home or suspicious mail, such as bills or credit card applications, in your child's name.
But they're not always an indication of fraud. Credit card applications, for instance, might come from a bank where your child has a savings account.
What can parents do?
Above all, be stingy about giving out your child's Social Security number, whether it's for school, sports, Scouts or church.
"Push back on that. Question why it's asked for," said Dennedy. "Just like you wouldn't throw a couple of dollars on the street, you don't throw extra pieces of information (about your child) out there."
Another option is credit monitoring services, which are sold by many banks, credit reporting bureaus and online security companies like McAfee and others. They offer, for instance, to alert you when someone is trying to open an account in your name.
They can bring peace of mind, but not all of them may be worth the fees, according to a study released in February by Consumer Reports.
In 2010, about 50 million consumers bought ID theft protection, paying $150 to $300 a year for services that may be "questionable," said Consumer Reports.
The magazine's advice: "Take the (identity) threat seriously, but don't panic."
Most minors under 18 will not have a credit history unless someone has used their Social Security number to fraudulently open an account or take out a loan.
The best way to check if your son or daughter has been targeted is to request a credit report by contacting each of the three credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
TransUnion has an online request form for parents or guardians to fill out. Experian asks for such parent requests in writing. In both cases, they require the child's Social Security number, birthdate and parent's ID.
When parents uncover a fraudulent account, they can follow procedures to clear the child's credit history.
But don't panic and rush out to request your child's credit report, said McNabb. Unless you have a good suspicion that accounts have been opened in your child's name, "It's not really justified to go through this process every year."
Generally, McNabb said, a good time to check is when your son or daughter is 16 or 17 and nearing high school graduation. They might be applying for college or scholarships, renting an apartment or buying a car, all of which can require a credit history.
Parents can do the obvious: Keep computers password-protected. Shred documents that carry financial information.
"Treat your personal financial information like it's cash," said Steven Schwartz, online security expert with Intersections Inc., a risk management firm in Virginia.
And monitor how your kids behave online, he added. Teach your kids to never give out information with their name, address, date of birth, phone and Social Security number, especially on social networking sites.
"Get on Facebook. Get on Twitter. If you're not experiencing that world, you're missing out on your child's reality," said Dennedy. "Don't dismiss it as silly. It's not silly to them."
Dennedy said legislation and law enforcement aren't moving fast enough to protect kids from identity theft.
"It's up to parents -- the 'Mommy Mafia.' If more parents start doing this, the (crooks) will only go after adults."
Here are some how-to sources on children's identity theft:
• Federal Trade Commission, http://www.ftc.gov. Search for "Protecting Your Child's Personal Information at School"
• Identity Theft Resource Center, http://www.idtheftcenter.org. Search for "Fact Sheet 120: Identity Theft and Children"
How to contact the three credit reporting bureaus:
• Equifax, 800-525-6285
• Experian, 888-397-3742
• TransUnion, 800-680-7289
Source: McClatchy Newspapers research