Teenagers entering college or starting their first job may have a lot on their minds. But the possibility of falling prey to identity theft is probably not among them.
Just ask Zach Friesen. At age 7, his identity was stolen. A thief used his name - and his spotless credit record - to buy a $40,000 houseboat. Mr. Friesen wasn't aware of the crime until 10 years later, when he applied for his first job. Soon after, he learned that he had two names listed under his Social Security number and a sordid credit history.
"I had no idea what to do," recalls Friesen, a University of Colorado sophomore, who now travels around the country trying to educate other students about the risks of identity theft.
Increasingly, thieves are targeting those too young to file a tax return, get an auto loan, or even own a credit card. Of the more than 255,000 identity theft complaints filed with the US Federal Trade Commission in 2005, 5 percent involved people under age 18 - up from 3 percent in 2003 - making that demographic the fastest-growing target for identity thieves. College students and young adults ages 18 to 29 make up 29 percent of those filing complaints.
The under-29 segment is "rapidly growing," says Melodi Mosley Gates, director of information security for Qwest Communications in Denver. "It's a really underserved part of the population. Perhaps it's not as vocal an audience.... Young people often don't find out until later that it's happened to them."
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) in San Diego has had an "untold increase" in the number of calls and e-mails from 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds, says Linda Foley, the group's executive director. Part of the reason is that in 1989, the Social Security Administration implemented the "Enumeration at Birth" program, letting parents automatically register for an infant's Social Security number as part of the birth registry paperwork. The program has increased the number of registrations for infants. "Now they're reaching the age of using credit cards, getting loans, and they're saying 'Wait a minute ... someone's using my number,' " says Ms. Foley.
Sometimes that person is a parent, she says. A 19-year-old woman in California contacted the center after she was denied her first credit card because her mother and aunt had overdrawn a credit account in her name, according to Foley.
Friesen says he too has met students who have been victimized by their parents. "I've met students who say, 'I know it's happened to me; I've been getting my dad's phone bill in my name. Do I have to pay? How do I protect myself?' "
Young people are attractive to identity thieves, experts say, because they have a clean credit record and are less likely to check their credit history, allowing the theft to go undetected longer.
"People joke over cocktails about, 'Isn't it funny, my 5-year-old got a credit-card statement in the mail?' It's not funny," says Ms. Gates, adding that credit-card offers or other "unusual mail" sent to children under 18 should be a warning sign.
Over half of all personal information security breaches are at universities, experts say. Nearly half of all college students have had their grades posted by Social Security number, according to the US Department of Education. The practice sometimes leads to incidents such as one last year at the University of Mississippi, where 700 students' Social Security numbers were listed alongside their names on an open website.
Many students don't realize that they can tell college administrators not to post or otherwise give out their personal information. "[Young people] are more likely to say, 'I have to trust them when they ask me to give out this information; they're an authority figure,' " Friesen says.
Casual attitudes about information sharing over the Internet also put teens at risk. Social network websites like Facebook.com, Friendster.com, and MySpace.com let students not only post their favorite music and relationship status, but also their addresses, cellphone numbers, and previous employers - information that could be used to create a credit account in their names. "I have a Facebook account," Friesen says. "You can put information out as long as you know what you can give out and what information you absolutely can't."
While legislation in some states allows consumers to freeze credit reports and requires companies to notify people if their personal data could be at risk, few laws specifically address child or teen identity theft. The ITRC, says Foley, is working with US Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington on a bill that would help credit issuers find out whether a Social Security number on any transaction belongs to a minor.
"ID theft is the crime that this generation is going to have as part of their life, for most of their life," Foley says, "but teens and parents can learn to take care of themselves and treat their information as the most valuable thing they have."
• Only give out your Social Security number when absolutely necessary - generally for tax purposes. For job applications, drivers licenses, and school identification, your SSN is not usually required. Ask adults who ask for this information why they need it and how they will protect it.
• Protect your cellphone, laptop, and PDA with a password. Don't store personal information on these electronic devices. Shred any papers with personal data before disposing of them.
• Create effective passwords. Ideally, they should contain upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters (!, $, &, etc.)
• Check your credit report with one of the three major credit agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) at least once a year. By law, you are entitled to one free report yearly. You can find them online at www.annualcreditreport.com.
• If you're too young to have a credit card, or don't have one already, be alert to any unsolicited credit-card offers in the mail addressed to you. The only way you should receive them is if you have a credit history.
• Always check your bank and credit-card statements for any irregularities.
• Educate yourself about "phishing" and "pharming" e-mails; some are very sophisticated.