Parents and guardians can now freeze credit for children under 16. Credit bureaus should create a child’s credit report if it doesn’t exist – which it should – and freeze it. 16 and 17 year olds can request gels themselves.

Credit bureaus do not knowingly create credit reports for minors. But they have no way of verifying that a Social Security number actually belongs to the person using it, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit organization that helps prevent and recover identity theft. Thieves can even “create” a consumer by mixing a child’s social security number with a different name, address, and date of birth, a practice called synthetic identity theft. Because parents have little reason to check if a credit report exists for their child, the crime can go unnoticed for years.

Eva Casey Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, says she “absolutely” recommends that parents freeze their children’s credit. This will prevent criminals from using the child’s personal data to obtain credit, creating a mess for the family to clean up. (And don’t forget to freeze your own credit, too, to prevent fraudsters from opening new credit accounts in your name.)

Here’s a simplified way to freeze a child’s credit, and some tips for protecting yourself against identity theft.

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How to freeze a child’s credit

1. Gather the necessary documents

the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) have slightly different requirements. But to make the process simple and streamlined, just send the same set of documents to everyone. Each office will not consider additional documentation.

Here’s what you need to cover the requirements of all three offices. Make three sets of copies for each; do not send originals:

  • Your government issued ID (usually a driver’s license).

  • Your child’s birth certificate or any other document proving that you have the power to act on behalf of the child (foster care certificate, power of attorney or court order).

  • Your Social Security card.

  • Your child’s social security card.

  • A utility bill or bank or insurance statement with your name and address on it.

Sort the copies into three piles, one for each credit bureau.

2. Print the child freeze request forms

If you are requesting a gel for more than one child, you will need to complete a form for each of them. You can download the necessary forms from Equifax and Experiential.

TransUnion does not have a form, but you can download this letter to be completed to request a “protected consumption freeze” for your child.

3. Mail the request and document copies

You will send each form or letter, along with a set of documents, to each credit bureau. Equifax and Experian list their mailing addresses on their freeze request forms. The address for TransUnion is PO Box 380, Woodlyn, PA 19094.

Regular or certified mail is acceptable. Because you are sending sensitive personal information, NerdWallet suggests using certified mail.

4. Wait for confirmation, then store it safely.

You will receive confirmation in the mail that a gel has been placed, and correspondence will include your child’s PIN. This number is needed to unlock your child’s credit, so keep it in a safe place (a fireproof safe is ideal). You may also want to store it electronically using a secure password management service, for example.

The freeze will stay in place until your child later unlocks it to apply for a credit card, car loan, student loan, or other credit.

How to protect your child from identity theft

Freezing your child’s credit will prevent a criminal from opening credit on your child’s behalf, but it does not fully protect your child from identity theft.

You can develop habits to guard against identity theft and teach your child to do the same.

  • Protect Social Security numbers by leaving application forms blank until you are told why they are needed and how they will be protected.

  • Pay attention to the mail. While credit pre-approval offers on behalf of your child may not always indicate identity theft, they are worth investigating. Correspondence from a collection agency to your child is a huge red flag.

  • Keep your child’s documents locked up. Birth certificates and social security cards don’t have to be in your purse, wallet, or car. Protect anything with this information in your own home. This means keeping documents with social security numbers inaccessible, possibly in a safe or locked filing cabinet, inaccessible to service people and visitors.

  • Monitor information on health insurance claims. A claim that does not make sense to you may indicate that your child’s personal information was used to access Medicare benefits.

Parents and other guardians also need to understand that a child’s data is not their own, even if a child is in their care, Velasquez says. Parents or adoptive parents have sometimes used children’s unblemished records with noble intentions, for example, to connect utilities or to set up mobile devices so they can stay in touch with family. But such actions constitute identity theft.

Protecting personal data is not the ultimate solution, but it is what we can do now.

“A Social Security number should not be used as an auditor,” says Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “We need a better way to verify identity. Ultimately, this is the solution.

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