FRISCO -- At 10 years old, Cassidy McKenna opened water and gas accounts. At 12, she opened electric and cable accounts.
The Frisco teen just didn’t know it until early last month.
“Two days before I graduated, I went in to open my first bank account, and the guy who was helping me informed me that I had to have a second chance account, because I had bad credit,” said Cassidy, 18. “I told him that was impossible, because I had never had credit before.”
Cassidy initially couldn't get her own credit report. She didn't know the right answers.
When she did get it, about a week later, she and her father, Patrick, found the electric and cable accounts linked to a house in Frisco. They also soon discovered accounts for water and gas had been opened in Cassidy’s name at a Plano home.
Both are addresses where her mother and stepfather previously lived and had been evicted from, records show.
Cassidy, unfortunately, is not alone. One recent study of more than 42,000 found over 10 percent had someone else using their Social Security numbers. Other studies have shown about 70 percent of child identity theft is perpetrated by relatives or someone close to the family.
“There is nothing more beautiful to an identity thief than a child’s Social Security number, because they really have no credit, so you can basically create whatever you want to create,” said Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911.
And family members or those close to the family are in a particularly advantageous position.
“They know everything about you,” he said. “They know your birth date. They know where you live. They know what you like to do.”
Days after the discovery, Patrick McKenna contacted his ex-wife and asked how the accounts had been opened in Cassidy’s name.
“The first one was, ‘I don’t know,’" Patrick McKenna said. “I said, ‘Who could have done this?’"
He said she responded that she didn’t know. He said he then told her that the addresses were places where she had lived. He said she denied any knowledge of it, and also blamed Cassidy's older sister.
“It’s very frustrating because she hasn’t had a chance to build credit,” Patrick McKenna said. “She can’t even ruin her own credit, because somebody has ruined it for her.”
Her mother, Debra McKenna, could not be reached. She's currently facing an unrelated felony theft charge in Kerr County.
Cassidy filed reports with Frisco and Plano police departments.
Patrick McKenna said he’s spent hours and hours gathering up the documentation and filling out the paperwork for the creditors to prove that she did not open the accounts. The credit report listed Cassidy as owing $1,123 for cable and $1,755 for electricity.
“The worst was the cable company,” McKenna said. “They just didn’t want to take it off her credit unless we could definitely prove it wasn’t her. She was 12 years old at the time. She wasn’t getting cable.”
Like Cassidy, many victims of child identity theft don't know they’ve been victimized until they need credit. Many times, they need professional help to unravel the mess.
Legally, a Social Security number cannot be used to obtain credit until a person turns 18, but creditors currently have no way of knowing if it belongs to a juvenile or not, experts say.
The Identity Theft Resource Center has proposed a way to fix that situation.
They suggested creating Minors 17-10 Database that would be maintained by the Social Security Administration and would include all Americans from birth to 17 years and 10 months old. Credit issuers would be able to check that database to determine if a Social Security number belongs to a juvenile.
That proposal stalled in Congress amid opposition from privacy advocates, Levin said.
There have also been other successful efforts on state and federal levels to try to make it more difficult for children to be victimized.
A new Texas law allows parents to put a security freeze on the consumer and credit files of their children 16 years or younger. In 2011, Congress passed a law that requires foster care agencies to get annual credit reports when a foster child turns 16. They also must help the children clear up their credit if there’s a problem.
Until she can get her credit report cleared, Cassidy is caught in a holding pattern. She’s working at a local fast-food restaurant and living with her father. She can’t apply for student loans until the credit mess is straightened out. She’s put off plans to attend a local community college.
“It’s hard to believe that someone so close to me would steal my credit,” Cassidy said. “I just think that's pathetic -- that you would take your own daughter’s identity.”
Tips to protect your child’s identity
- Don’t check your child’s credit reports on a regular basis because it may have the unintended consequence of putting a child at even greater risk. Parents should check credit reports for their child every three to four years for children under 16.
- Keep an eye out for mail in your child’s name. If you receive pre-approved credit card offers or other similar offers, that’s a red flag and may indicate that your child has an open credit file.
- Teach your child about the dangers of identity theft and sharing personal data online.
- Lock up your child’s personal information so that visitors to your home cannot access it.
- For more tips, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center at this link.
Source: Carnegie Mellon University CyLab