Pomp and Suspicious Circumstance

College grads are struggling in this post-recession economy. Many can’t find work and have to move back in with their parents. Child identity theft can make matters worse by jeopardizing their credit. Learn how a George Washington University student is fighting back with help from one of our fraud investigators.

Thursday, August 11, 2011
Jaleesa Suell overcame a difficult past, but today the 21-year-old George Washington University student’s greatest challenge is one that threatens her future: child identity theft.

She recently applied for a credit card to establish a credit history—and was denied. Suell spent a good part of her childhood in foster care, living in six different homes and occasionally with relatives until she became an adult. One of her guardians opened a credit card in her name and then defaulted on the payments.

The discovery was devastating. “As a youth in the system, I often worried if I was going to have a place to live the next day or have food,” said Suell, who has ambitions to be a child advocacy lawyer. “I’ve worked so hard to ensure that won’t happen. But I was considered a liability because a family member stole my identity.”

Like Suell, many child identity theft victims first detect the crime when they’re in their 20s, in college, and applying for credit for the first time. They find themselves burdened with someone else’s debt and often unable to secure financing for their education and, later in life, mortgages and auto loans.

Children are tempting targets for identity thieves because they have pristine credit histories and no reason to check a credit report. Foster children like Suell are even more vulnerable because they move around and have various legal guardians who have access to their personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that victims ages 19 and younger comprised 8 percent of all identity theft complaints in 2010, compared with 7 percent the previous year. A recent Carnegie Mellon study found that Social Security numbers of 10.2 percent of children studied had been misused—more than 50 times the rate for the adults studied.

But experts believe those numbers don’t accurately reflect the severity of the problem for children because many perpetrators are related to their victims—and many people are either afraid or hesitant to pursue legal action against a member of their own family.

There is disagreement over the best way to protect minors from identity theft, though all agree that something must be done. The Identity Theft Resource Center has proposed the 17-10 Solution, a registry containing the names, birth dates and SSNs of everyone under the age of 17 years and 10 months. Potential creditors or employers would be required to check all applicants against the database, and, if there is a match, to investigate further before granting credit or hiring.

Privacy experts debate the safety of such a vast store of information. But as Suell and tens of thousands of others like her can attest, any solution is better than allowing the problem to continue at its current pace.

At first Suell tried to remove the bad debt from her credit report on her own until she was referred to CyberScout for help.

Mark Fullbright, a CyberScout fraud investigator assigned to her case, immediately took steps to restore Suell’s good name and credit. He placed a fraud alert on her credit report and enrolled her in CyberScout’s fraud and credit monitoring program.

“Mark has been a great help,” said Suell, who was thankful for his help with coordinating communication with the credit bureaus, banks and collection agencies involved. “He’s offered advice on how to build my credit once the dispute is resolved,” she said. “CyberScout has been nothing but helpful.”

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