Imagine you are a 17 year old in foster care. It was an uphill battle, but you will successfully graduate from high school. You finally secured a part time job and plan to begin saving for a security deposit on an apartment so that you have some place to stay once you turn 18 and can no longer live in the group home. You have applied to a local college since your plan is to go on to higher education.
Then your student loan application gets rejected, and your new employer tells you she can’t hire you because of bad credit. Your plan crumbles. You have no idea what this means. How can you have several outstanding debts including an auto loan and a mortgage when you’re only 17?
You have been a victim of child identity theft, and you have no idea what to do.
Children in foster care are the easiest and most vulnerable targets for identity theft. There are many people involved in their lives. Parents, case managers, mentors, foster parents, kinship care providers, and treatment facilities personnel; all these people may have access to the children’s personal information and may be able to use it without anyone noticing. Most foster children do not discover the fraud until they age out of the foster care system. By then, they no longer have legal representation or any other support needed to correct their credit history. The exact number of children who have been victims of identity theft in Wisconsin is not known. However, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, half of the 84,000 children in California’s foster care system have been victims of identity theft and the average debt is over $12,000.
Waiting to resolve identity theft only creates more obstacles to success as foster children age out of the system. Having bad credit can influence the ability of young people to start their lives on the right track. Foster youth victimized by identity theft will suffer from affects on their education, housing, health, and more. Bad credit can prevent youth from being able to rent an apartment, contract for utilities, and apply for financial aid to attend college.
By federal law, each child in foster care who is sixteen or older is entitled to a copy of his or her credit report each year. See 42 U.S.C. § 675(5)I. State agencies are required to provide the credit report without cost to the child. Agencies must also assist the foster care child with reviewing the credit report and address any inaccuracies. Therefore, in Milwaukee, the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW) must provide foster care youths with copies of their credit report. BMCW is also required to help these youth in resolving issues shown on their credit report.
Steps to protect youth from identity theft
- Ensure the credit of a young person in foster care is checked as part of every transition services plan.
- Tell the young person not to carry their Social Security card and remind them to never give out their Social Security number over the phone or on the internet.
- Keep any and all financial statements in a safe and private place. If they do not have a safe place to keep their information, like a locked box or storage container, offer to keep their documents for them in a safe and secure place in your office.
- Instruct them to keep their Personal Information Number (PIN) and password to private accounts private. This includes passwords to e-mail, Facebook, bank statements, and loan accounts.
- Ask them to always shred all pre-screened offers they receive by mail. If they want to opt out of receiving pre-screened offers, tell them to call 1-800-5-OPT-OUT.
- Remind them to always shred all sensitive documents. Throwing these papers in the trash is not enough. Their information can be stolen by people looking in the dumpsters.