Teens easy target of identity thieves

Young consumers are encouraged to protect personal information from strangers, especially online

Your money

November 06, 2005|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Some teenagers, navigating the delicate stage between childhood and adulthood, are being taught a life lesson by identity thieves.

"For young consumers - people who are just entering the financial marketplace - they really have to learn the skills to protect their own personal identifying information and not let it fall into the wrong hands," says Betsy Broder, assistant director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

"They need to treat personal information as if it were money in their wallet. That may have even greater impact on your life than the money in your wallet."

Teenagers may not discover that someone has swiped their identities for years, says Judith Collins, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and an international expert on identity theft.

"That's why perpetrators like to use teens," she says. "They know they won't be caught, that the theft will go uncovered or the theft will not be detected for months later."

There are several ways teens' identities can be stolen, and they're not much different from the tactics crooks use against adults:

They steal Social Security cards from wallets or purses.

Don't carry your Social Security card with you. It's the key to unlocking your financial life. No other single piece of information about you has as much power as your Social Security number.

With it, thieves can open bank accounts and get loans in your name, stiff the bank and leave your good name and credit in tatters.

They swipe bank statements.

If you have a bank account, protect your bank statements and shred old ones.

They use "phishing" attacks that entice teens into sharing personal financial information through bogus e-mail and suspicious links.

It's especially important to protect yourself online, considering the amount of time many teens spend on their computers. Don't share passwords with your friends, because that enables them to break into your personal accounts and access personal information.

Unfortunately, teens also face the possibility of identity theft at the hand of a family member - even parents.

"It's the person who has the easiest access to information," says Linda Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

"Mom or Dad will go and apply for credit using the teenager's Social Security number, because the parents can't qualify," says Steve Camp, a banking lawyer at Gardere Wynne Sewell in Dallas.

College is also a vulnerable time.

"When they get into college, suddenly a whole world of credit opportunities opens up for teenagers," Camp says. "That's when they start to get credit applications. They're more mobile, and they need to make sure their mail is being forwarded."

Make sure you don't leave your personal information out in the open in your dorm.

"Lock up anything that has an account number on it," Foley says. "If the Social Security number is part of their student ID number, they are definitely in a more vulnerable position."

Parents should be aware of red flags.

"You should be suspicious if they start getting credit-card applications in the mail," Broder says.

That may indicate that someone has started a credit history in your child's name.

That's how Jan Hublein of Dallas discovered that someone had obtained a credit card using the Social Security number of her son, Evan.

Sorting out the problem was a huge task. She put a fraud alert on his credit report, so that lenders would think twice before granting credit in his name.

"When I tried to contact the different companies that were issuing the cards, they always wanted to talk to him before they talked to me," Hublein says.

"Eventually, we got it all done, but several times I had to drag him out of bed in the morning and say, `Talk to this lady and tell them I'm your mother.'"

That was two years ago. Evan, now 19, attends Texas State University in San Marcos.

Hublein says she suspects that her son's identity theft occurred after he applied for a job at a mall.

Until then, "the only place he used his Social Security number, which the thieves had, was in his school records," she says.

The identity thieves charged "less than $1,000" on the cards they got using Evan's name.

The Hubleins didn't have to pay for those charges, because they were fraudulent, but Hublein was amazed at the speed at which the crooks applied for credit cards in Evan's name.

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