How can I protect my children from identity theft?

March 6, 2014 20:43 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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Doctor requiring Social Security number to make appointment

September 26, 2013 19:04 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, birth date 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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Can a credit card issuer share my Social Security number?

June 7, 2013 00:12 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I have a department store credit card issued through a retail bank. I recently received a privacy policy form in the mail.  Part of the policy states that the types of personal information they collect and share depend on the product or service I have with them, but the information collected and shared can include:

•    Social Security number and income

•    Account balances and payment history

•    Credit history and credit scores

They said you could phone and limit sharing – which I did immediately – but it may take up to 30 days from the date the notice was sent.  My question is this:  Do the department store/retail bank have the right to share my Social Security number with other people?  This seems like a huge security risk and invasion of my privacy.

Consumer Ed says: 

Although we have not disclosed the name of the particular department store or retail bank in this column, based on the information that you have provided to us it appears that the department store’s credit card is operated by the retail bank in question, so it is probably the bank’s privacy policy that you received in the mail.  The reason this matters is because the bank meets the definition of a “financial institution” under federal law.  As such, it is allowed to share your nonpublic personal information, e.g. your Social Security number, provided that it follows certain regulations required by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).  Specifically, the bank can disclose nonpublic personal information about you to a nonaffiliated third party if it has done all of the following:

•    provided you initial notice;
•    sent you an opt-out notice;
•    given you a reasonable opportunity, before it disclosed the information to the nonaffiliated third party, to opt out of the disclosure; and
•    you do not opt out.

Additionally, any entity (whether it is a financial institution or not) that receives your personal information from the bank may be restricted in its reuse and re-disclosure of your personal information.  

Based on your question, it sounds like you’re also concerned about the security risks involved with the sharing of personal information.  You should know that the FTC has established a regulation requiring financial institutions to “develop, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information security program” in order to “insure the security and confidentiality of customer information.”  You can learn more by visiting the FTC’s webpage about the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act at www.ftc.gov/privacy/glbact/glboutline.htm.  If you have any additional concerns and need legal advice, you should consult a lawyer.

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