When I first began covering credit freezes, I was shocked that the bureaus would not let me freeze my child’s credit.
As I’ve mentioned in several blog posts and broadcast news stories, a credit freeze is widely believed to be the single best tool to prevent financial ID theft. It basically prevents anyone from running a credit check in your name—and thus prevents them from taking out credit in your name (credit cards, loans, utility accounts, etc.).
For adults, freezing and thawing your credit is a simple online process—largely because regulators require it to be simple. However, two of the three credit bureaus continue to refuse to allow parents to freeze their child’s credit, unless they live in a state with laws that require the bureaus to allow it.
The bureaus have long insisted that they will only freeze a child’s credit (a process also known as a Protected Minor Security Freeze) if there is an existing credit file to freeze. Herein lies the problem. Because children can not apply for credit, the only way a child would have an existing credit file is if someone had already stolen her identity and taken out credit in her name.
In “Why My Toddler has a Credit Card,” I cited a Carnegie Mellon report that found that 1 in 10 children studied were victims of ID Theft. The report concluded that kids could be 50 times more likely to have their identities stolen than adults.
So being a bit of a helicopter parent when it comes to ID Theft (an unfortunate byproduct of my day job), I found a loophole that allowed me to create a “real” credit file for my toddler before crooks could create a “fake” one in her name. I added my 16-month-old daughter as an authorized user on my credit card.
This does not begin to generate a “credit score” or help her build credit; it simply creates a “file” in my child’s name with the credit bureaus.
See “Why My Toddler has a Credit Card” for details.
The work-around surprised even some at the credit bureaus. They had to allow me to freeze my child’s credit file.
However, my celebration was short-lived.
When I began to create a step-by-step guide to help other parents freeze their child’s credit, I discovered that the bureaus were putting both parent and child information at risk by using antiquated protocols.
Two of the bureaus forced me to give my Social Security number to an anonymous Indian call center rep (with no employee ID) before they would transfer me to the proper U.S. department. I won’t even give that number to my doctor!
See “You Need My Social Security Number But You Won’t Give Me Your Employee ID?” for an amusing transcript of my conversation with a credit bureau call center employee.
Two bureaus also asked that I put sensitive information in the mail (copies of Social Security cards, a birth certificate, driver’s license, etc.). The address on the envelope is enough to tip off bad guys that there’s an entire identity inside.
I couldn’t in good faith ask other parents to do things I advise against on TV, so I set out to change those protocols. Six months and countless conversations later, I’ve convinced the bureaus to make a few changes.
They will now allow you to use your address and other identifying information if you decline to give your Social Security number over the phone (but you have to know to ask).
All three bureaus have also provided alternatives to mailing in sensitive information. One bureau (Experian) now allows you to submit the required documentation though a secure online upload. The other two bureaus (TransUnion & Equifax) provided me with a fax number and agreed to allow me to share them as part of this exclusive how-to guide.
Click the list above for a detailed guide that includes hard-to-find contact information, tips and sample documents specific to each bureau. You’ll also find a candid description of the hurdles and successes I encountered along the way.
Now let’s be clear, parents should not have to jump through these hoops to freeze their child’s credit. Security experts agree that federal regulations should require the bureaus to offer a simple and secure online option for parents to verify guardianship and implement a security freeze.
In a recent interview for a KPIX ConsumerWatch segment, the CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center criticized the bureaus for not proactively offering these protections for children.
“The bureaus are always reluctant to implement protections that do not make them money,” said Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.
Neal O’Farrell of the Identity Theft Council agreed that “the bureaus made it very difficult to freeze your own credit, too, until laws changed to force them to make it easier. Now it’s a simple and secure online process.”
NOTE: Equifax recently began allowing parents in every state to freeze their child’s credit—with or without an existing credit file. However, you need to freeze a credit file with all three bureaus to be fully protected.
Most experts agree that a credit freeze (aka security freeze) is the best tool to prevent ID thieves from hijacking your credit.
They also agree that a child’s unused Social Security number is far more valuable to ID thieves than yours or mine.
Between the recent Anthem and Premera Blue Cross breaches alone, hackers gained access to as many as 19 million names, Social Security numbers and birth dates. Many of the victims were children.
This is a clear example of just how vulnerable kids really are. Thieves got more than enough information to target the kids’ birth dates and create entirely new identities in their names.
Because most kids don’t have existing credit files, the bad guys know they can easily create fake ones in their names that will likely go unnoticed until the children turn 18.
Adding your child as an authorized user on your credit card is a work-around that allows you to create a legitimate credit file for your child. However, if you don’t immediately freeze it, crooks can steal that too.
As a result, Velasquez worries that it’s not a good solution for everyone. “They could try to get creative with some of these loopholes without having a full understanding of how the infrastructure and the financial system works, and create a bigger mess.”
A handful of states have enacted laws requiring that the credit bureaus allow parents to place a freeze on their child’s Social Security number—whether or not the child has an existing credit file. However, this does not help parents in most states (like California).
That’s right, in a state so progressive that we tax soda and ban plastic bags, there are no consumer protections that allow you to freeze your child’s credit.
Until federal regulators demand the same rights for children in every state, proactive parents can use the steps provided here to freeze their child’s credit—but they shouldn’t have to.