Protecting children from identity theft

March 6, 2014 18:21 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

I really want to protect my children from identity theft.  At what age should I check to see if they have a credit report and whether it contains any suspicious information?

Consumer Ed says: 

Most parents apply for their children’s Social Security numbers (SSN) very soon after their children are born, and a SSN is all that's required to open most credit accounts.  Therefore, it’s never too early to take steps to protect your children from identity theft.  You should contact each of the three credit reporting companies, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion, to request your children’s credit reports so that you can examine them for fraudulent activity.  When you contact each company, ask for a manual search of your children’s files.  The companies may require copies of the children’s birth certificates, Social Security cards, your government-issued identification cards, and proof of address.  You can contact the companies by visiting their websites:  www.experian.com, www.equifax.com, and www.transunion.com.

In addition to getting your children’s credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies, there are additional steps that you can take to protect your children from identity theft:

  • Keep all documents that contain your children’s personal information safely locked up. 
  • Avoid carrying your children’s Social Security cards with you.
  • Do not share your children’s SSNs unless you know and trust the other party.
  • If someone asks for your children’s SSNs, ask why they want them, how they’ll safeguard them, how long they’ll keep them, and how they’ll dispose of them. If you’re not satisfied with the answers, do not share the numbers, and ask to use other identifiers.
  • Before you share personal information on the internet, make sure you have a secure connection.  A secure website has a lock icon in the address bar and a URL that begins with “https.”
  • Also, use strong passwords, and keep them private.  If you use a password to sign into a website, log out of the site when you’re finished.
  • Use a computer with updated antivirus and firewall protection. Don’t send any personal or financial information through an unsecured wireless connection in a public place.
  • Limit the chances that your children’s information will be stolen or misused at school by finding out who has access to your children’s personal information.  Also, read the notices that schools are required to send explaining your rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  That law protects the privacy of student education records, and gives you the right to opt out of the release of directory information to third parties, including other families.
  • Safely dispose of personal information.
  • Be alert to phishing scams, where criminals send an email, text, or pop-up message that looks like it’s from a legitimate organization.  A phishing message asks the recipient to click on a link or call a phone number, and to share personal or financial information.
  • Share all of these safety tips with your children, especially if your children use the internet.


You should begin looking into the possibility that your children are victims of identity theft if you or your children have experienced any of the following warning signs:

  • You or your children were turned down for government benefits because the benefits are being paid to another account using one of your children’s SSNs;
  • The Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service (IRS), or some other government agency asks you to confirm that your children are employed, even though your children have never had jobs;
  • You or your children received a notice from the IRS saying the children didn’t pay income taxes, or that the children’s SSNs were used on other tax returns; and/or
  • You or your children received collection calls or bills for products or services you didn’t purchase or receive.


If you know or suspect your children have been victims of identity theft, contact each of the three credit reporting agencies.  Explain that your children are minors, and cannot legally enter into any type of contract.  To prove that your children are minors, send the credit reporting agencies a completed copy of the Uniform Minor’s Status Declaration (make sure you ask each company for its mailing address).  Next, send a letter to each credit reporting company. Ask them to remove all accounts, account inquiries, and collection notices from the credit files associated with your children’s names or personal information.  It won’t be a quick process, but it shouldn’t take more than 90 days from the date you get an acknowledgment of your request.

For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0040-child-identity-theft.

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Can a merchant require my address when I'm making an in-store purchase or exchange?

January 21, 2014 17:56 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I am tired of being asked for personal information when I am simply trying to buy something. What does Georgia Law say concerning merchants "requiring" an address when you are making a purchase or trying to return or exchange merchandise?  I am asking this with regards to actually being at a place of business and NOT shopping online.  Today I tried to exchange an article of clothing and was told by the sales person that I had to provide my address in order to conduct the exchange.  Is this legal?

Consumer Ed says: 

Georgia law generally doesn’t prohibit merchants from asking that consumers provide personal information in order to complete a transaction, with some very limited exceptions.  When a customer pays for a purchase by personal check, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act specifies the information a business may collect for identification purposes. It states that a merchant may not imprint or copy the customer’s credit or debit card number as a condition of purchase by check. However, the merchant may still:

  • Request a driver’s license number.
  • Ask to see a credit or debit card as a form of identification.
  • Record on the check the type of credit card and expiration date.
  • Record a credit card number and expiration date, if the credit card company has agreed to guarantee checks as a special service to its cardholders.
  • Record an address and telephone number.


Ultimately, a merchant may require that you provide your address in order to make a purchase or to process a return or exchange of goods at their business.  Businesses often ask customers for their personal information for a variety of reasons, including:  to keep track of the customer’s purchases under the merchant’s loyalty rewards program; to build customer purchasing profiles to help them better market their products and services to you; or to create “return profiles” that catalog and analyze returns in their store to detect fraud and organized retail crime. 

Merchants are free to request information as a requirement of transacting business with them, but ultimately the decision to do business with a particular merchant  is up you, the customer.  So the decision whether to share your personal information with a merchant or to withhold your personal information is in your hands.  A business may decide not to provide you with a service or benefit if you don’t provide your information.  However, you should discuss any concerns you have with the merchant – they may be willing to waive the requirement that you give them your personal information or that may be able to allay your concerns by explaining how they use your personal information and how they ensure your information is kept private.

A few tips

  • Ask questions. If a merchant asks for personal information that you feel uncomfortable disclosing, don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as:
  • Why do you need it?
  • What will you do with it?
  • What authority do you have to require that I provide it?
  • What are the consequences if I don’t provide it?
  • How will you protect my personal information?
  • How will you dispose of my personal information once you’re finished using it?
  • Look for disclosure notices.  Often merchants will have a notice at the cash register or on your sales receipt indicating the merchant’s terms of purchase and terms for returning merchandise, including what information you may be asked to give them in order to complete a transaction or make a return.  Review these notices carefully before you make a purchase so that you are not caught unaware later.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. If you do not feel secure sharing your personal information with a particular merchant, or have concerns that your information will not be kept confidential, don’t risk it.  Take your business elsewhere.

 

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Doctor's office requiring Social Security Number to make an appointment

September 26, 2013 19:01 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

My doctor’s office is now requiring me to provide my Social Security Number in order to make an appointment.  I don’t want to give out that information, and my insurance company told me all the office needs is my name, birthdate and insurance policy number.  Is it legal for doctors' offices to require my Social Security Number? What are my rights? 

Consumer Ed says: 

The Social Security Number (SSN) was created in 1936 for the purposes of tracking an individual’s earnings and monitoring Social Security benefits paid to that individual.  Over time, the SSN has become a tool for identification and authentication in both the government and the private sector, since it is a fixed identifier that is unique to each person.  Because organizations within the private sector have increasingly used SSNs in business and record keeping systems, the availability and demand for the numbers by identity thieves has also grown.  In response to rising identity theft concerns, many insurers have discontinued the use of SSNs as policy holder identification numbers.  In today’s world, where it seems like identity theft is continuously on the rise, people must be careful in freely giving out their SSN.  It is always best to be cautious and ask “why?” 

So, are you legally required to provide your SSN to your medical provider?  The answer is no.  There are certain organizations that do require it, such as the IRS (for tax returns and federal loans), employers (for wage and tax reporting purposes), banks (for certain monetary transactions), and states (for welfare benefits, government health care plans, such as Medicaid, etc.), just to name a few.  However, medical providers are not such organizations, and since you know your insurance provider uses insurance policy numbers instead of SSNs, you know the doctor’s office isn’t using it as a requirement of your insurer.  Therefore, you don’t have to voluntarily provide your SSN.

However, there are no laws that make it illegal for a doctor’s office to require your SSN to schedule an appointment.  They’re permitted to use your number internally for identification verification or administrative purposes; one such purpose may be to aid in the bill collection process.  If the doctor has a patient’s social security number, then it’s easier to locate that patient and collect money owed; likewise, when a patient is deceased, having a social security number may make it easier for the medical provider to collect on unpaid bills.  Keep in mind that if you refuse to provide your SSN, the office can also refuse to schedule your appointment or provide services to you.

That being said, providing your SSN is completely voluntary, even when you are directly asked for it.  If you’re asked for your SSN and are uncomfortable doing so, you should ask the following questions to help you determine whether to surrender your private information:  (1) Why do you need it?  (2) How will you use it?  (3) What law requires me to provide it? and (4) What are the consequences if I refuse? 

Depending on the reason provided, see if a different type of information would serve the same purpose, and provide that information instead.  For example, if the office needs your SSN for identification purposes, offer your driver’s license number; or if the office needs it in the unfortunate event that you die and they need to collect money for unpaid bills, then provide the name and contact information of a person that knows your SSN and can provide it in such event. You can also try explaining to the office personnel that providing your SSN puts you at risk for identity theft and you aren’t comfortable giving it out.  None of this guarantees that they’ll agree to accept an alternative to your SSN.  If they won’t, and insist that you provide your SSN to schedule an appointment, then you might want to consider finding another office that won’t ask for such private and sensitive information before you’ve even been seen.

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