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Help! I Think My Stepmother Got a Credit Card in My Name

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A reader, Patty, wrote to us about a bill of more than $1,000 from a retailer that no longer exists — and on a card she never applied for — that is on her credit report.

I have a $1,000+ Montgomery Ward bill on my credit report. I was 13 at the time this bill was created. I suspect my deceased stepmother opened an account in my name. (Before she divorced my dad, she had a TON of bills she hid from my father. I suspect, this is one of the many.) Montgomery Ward is out of business, and she’s deceased. Is there a way to dispute this? Just curious.

Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of Credit.com and of Identity Theft 911, said what Patty described is a “classic case” of child identity theft. Many such cases are not discovered for years or even decades, he said.

What should she do now? “She should file a police report, contact the fraud departments of the three credit reporting agencies and provide proof that because of her age it would have been impossible for her to have incurred such a debt,” Levin said.

Patty is far from alone in being betrayed by adults who should have been protecting her. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently published sample letters for foster care caseworkers to send to credit bureaus on behalf of clients in their care, noting that there should not be a credit report for youths younger than 18, nor should there be credit activity before age 18.

“The Bureau is very concerned about foster care children’s vulnerability to credit reporting problems that can wreak financial havoc for them,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We want to help ensure that youth leave foster care with clean credit so that they have a firm foundation for their financial future.”

Patty was wise to check her own credit reports, and you’d be smart to do it, too — and particularly to encourage your young adult children to get into the habit of doing it to protect their own financial future.

You can get a free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. While they may look intimidating, it’s worthwhile to learn how to read them and to dispute any inaccurate information. The information contained in those reports is used to calculate credit scores, and those help determine whether you get approved for loans, what sort of interest rate you’ll pay and more. You can monitor your own score for free through an account on Credit.com, for example, or purchase your scores. An unexplained change in score might alert you to potential fraud or ID theft.

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