Identity theft is the number one scam in America and has been for more than a decade. But you don’t have to be the next victim, and neither does your child.
In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, 7 percent of households in the United States had at least one member age 12 or older experience one or more types of ID theft, according to the Department of Justice. That’s 8.8 million households, or 2.4 million more households than in 2005. The numbers are even more alarming for kids, where more than 1 in 10 are said to be ID theft victims.
That’s a lot of folks who are getting their identities stolen, and in a lot of different ways — from credit cards numbers to personal information.
Horror stories about ID theft are abundant. Here’s the latest one involving a tax refund, which cost victims $1 million.
The federal government — specifically the Federal Trade Commission — is doing its best to stop the scammers. But they’re hopelessly outnumbered, even when you factor in local and state law enforcement officials. So the feds are adjusting their strategy by letting consumers do some of the fighting.
This week, the agency released a series of guides and videos on how to protect your child’s identity, as well as your own. The information also covered what you can do if either one of you is a victim of identity theft.
Taking Charge (PDF) is a new guide on everything from your rights, to the kinds of identities that can be pilfered. It contains useful sample letters, forms, and essential contact information that will help any victim recover their identity with a minimum of loss, according to the FTC.
Another new guide, Safeguarding Your Child’s Future (PDF) offers parents tips on how to protect their children’s information, find out if a credit report has been created for them, and respond to problems.
What are the three steps you should take if your ID, or a member of your family’s identity, has been compromised?
Place an initial fraud alert.
Three nationwide credit reporting companies keep records of your credit history, says the FTC. If you think someone has misused your personal or financial information, call one of the companies and ask them to put an initial fraud alert on your credit report. You have to provide proof of your identity and the credit reporting company you call must tell the other companies about your alert.
Order your credit reports.
After you place an initial fraud alert, the credit reporting company will explain your rights and how you can get a copy of your credit report. Placing an initial fraud alert entitles you to a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies, according to the FTC.
Create an Identity Theft Report.
An Identity Theft Report helps you deal with credit reporting companies, debt collectors, and businesses that opened accounts in your name, says the FTC. You can use the report to get fraudulent information removed from your credit report, or stop a company from collecting debts that result from identity theft, for example.
To file an ID Theft Report, submit a complaint about the theft to the FTC and print a copy of the report. File a police report about the identity theft, and get a copy of the police report or the report number. Bring the FTC report along (it serves as an affidavit) when you you file a police report. Attach your FTC Identity Theft Affidavit to your police report to make an Identity Theft Report.
“This is critical information for consumers,” says David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “For victims of identity theft, knowing how to take charge is key. It can help minimize the damage and spot potential signs of trouble early.”
Much of the advice the FTC offers is obvious, or at least it should be obvious to the enlightened consumer. But as a concerned father, I never realized how vulnerable my kids might be to ID theft, or what I could do to avoid the problem.
The agency recommends maintaining an ongoing dialogue with your children.
“Talk with your child regularly about the privacy settings on social media sites and what information and photos to share on them,” it advises. “For example, it’s not a great idea to show photos with school or team uniforms, list birth dates or specific locations, or show background settings that are easy to identify. Why? Someone can use the information posted on a social media profile to guess account passwords.”
Just in case you’re not much of a reader, in which case you’ll probably never see this, the FTC also offers a new series of brief videos. Here’s the link.
There, now you can stop reading.
All kidding aside, you really need to know this information even if it’s repetitive, and yes, even if it’s common sense. Remember: ID theft is the biggest scam around. There’s a good chance you’ll be a victim one day, but there’s an even better chance that your child will.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.