By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 2/14/2006 2:26:22 PM ET 2006-02-14T19:26:22

If your child’s Social Security number had a secret life, would you know?  Probably not.  The only way to really know is to dig through the data, and you can’t. But the Utah state attorney general’s office can.  And the agency’s recent findings are alarming. 

By merging a list of kids receiving child welfare with a list of adults paying taxes, Utah officials discovered more than 1,800 kids’ numbers were being misused.  Among the more bizarre findings: A 5-year-old Ogden girl who supposedly traveled for 80 miles to work at her job at a steak restaurant in Provo and an 8-year-old who seemed to work as a prep cook at two upscale restaurants.  All the victims were 13 years old or younger.  In many cases, the children’s Social Security numbers had been pilfered by a thief who needed the proper identification to work. 

The study offers just a glimpse at the breadth of the child ID theft problem. Since welfare kids represent only 1 percent of the state's population, the actual number of Utah kids with such double lives is probably far higher.

And there are other indications that child ID theft is on the rise.  Two weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission released a study indicating reports of child ID theft doubled in the last two years.

"It's going like wildfire," said Rich Hamp, assistant attorney general in Utah, which helped run the Utah investigation.  “And there’s really no way (for parents) to find out about it.”

Children are an easy target for would-be identity thieves.  Most don't discover they’ve been hit for years, until they turn 16 or 17 and try to buy their first car or get their first credit card. 

Perhaps that's one explanation for a sharp rise in reports of child ID theft to the Federal Trade Commission. In 2003, 6,512 ID theft reports were filed on behalf of victims under 18 years old. Last year, the number was 11,601.

That may mean criminals are targeting kids more, or it may just mean that the first crop of children who were victims of the crime in the late 1990s — when the crime came in vogue — are only now discovering it. Or it could be both.

Hundreds of thousands of victims?
Linda Foley, who heads the Identity Theft Resource Center, said part of the increase can be attributed to general awareness of the problem, as parents are now able to spot warning signs.  But she also believes child ID theft is on the rise.

"Our call volume has increased dramatically," she said.  "It's large enough to cause me a lot of concern."

Whatever the reason, according to the FTC, about 1 in 20 identity theft victims in 2005 was a child. Javelin Research, which studies identity theft, recently concluded from a telephone survey that there were about 9 million ID theft victims last year. Its research suggests about 220,000 of those victims were children.

And the situation may be even worse than that. Earlier this week, NBC News and MSNBC.com reported on a particularly insidious form of ID theft called SSN-only ID theft.  Criminals use a victim's SSN but a different name. As a result, none of the accounts that are opened shows up on a credit report. In fact, there's no way to find out about such a crime.

Many of the impostors in SSN-only ID theft are illegal immigrants using someone else's number in order to provide the necessary documentation for employment.  Children are a particularly good target for this kind of ID theft –- as evidenced by the Utah study.

'Operation Protect the Children' 
That's why the Utah state attorney general's office last year turned to high-tech crime-fighting tactics and launched "Operation Protect the Children."  By working with the state welfare department and the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, Utah officials have begun to peel away the mask covering child ID theft.  But if 1,800 victims can be found by looking only at children who are signed up for welfare, one has to wonder what the actual number of victims really is.

"I have no reason to believe the impostors specifically target children on welfare," Hamp said.

Foley said today’s children are at a much higher risk of this kind of crime than kids one generation ago. Until the 1980s, many children didn't even have a Social Security number. But changes in IRS policies during the mid-'80s essentially required kids to be issued numbers —they are now required for parents to take the child tax deduction.  Now, hospitals often fill out the paperwork for parents the day the child is born.

“The group of children that would have been first affected by this are now reaching the age where they are noticing it, 18-20 years old,” Foley said. “I’m starting to hear from them now.”

Stay off marketing lists
Foley says there's little parents can do to protect their children ahead of time. But keeping kids off marketing lists is a good start. Think carefully before unnecessarily enrolling children in clubs or bonus programs like airline mileage plans, she said.  Also, take your child's Social Security card out of your wallet or purse and store it in a safe place — there's no need to carry it around.

But spotting child ID theft is a little like reading tea leaves, she said.  Foley's best advice: "Listen and watch."  Parents need to spot warning signs, such as an unexpected call from a debt collector or an unexpected bill mailed to the child. 

Pre-approved credit card applications are not necessarily a sign of ID theft, she added, because kids can get on financial companies' marketing lists when they get a bank account.

One thing Foley doesn't advocate is obtaining your child's credit report.  Kids often don't have one, and by making repeated requests for one, credit bureaus may artificially create a report for a child.  That can do more harm then good.  Unless there is a specific reason to suspect ID theft, Foley recommends waiting until the child is 15 or 16, or about one year before the kid will need a clean record to obtain credit.  That leaves enough time to clear up any problems.

When parents steal
But there is another complexity surrounding child ID theft that doesn’t complicate other types of cases, Foley said. Despite Utah’s findings involving illegal immigrants, she believes most child ID theft cases involve family members.

"In two-thirds of the cases, the thieves are parents or guardians," Foley said.  Often, the kids are foster children or children of divorce.

In one case Foley described, a 16-year-old named Jesse discovered his ID theft when he took his first job.  When he first filed his taxes, he found out his wages were being garnished by the state government for unpaid child support. Jesse's biological father, long since divorced from Jesse's mom, had stolen the boy's identity.  Dad hadn’t been paying his court-mandated contributions to the former family.  So thanks to the ID theft, Jesse was in effect being forced to pay his own child support.

The basic details of the case were confirmed by Detective Darren Robbins of the Fontana, Calif. police department, where the case was initially filed.

A check of the boy's credit report by his stepfather revealed much more financial abuse: The credit bureaus believed Jesse had purchased his first car at age 11.  He also had at least five credit cards and a total amount of credit exceeding $100,000 –- all listed under Jesse's Social Security number. 

Such heartbreak cases require delicate handling, Foley said. But it’s important for parents to deal with credit reports pockmarked by parents as soon as possible, to clean up the reports before trouble arises when the child comes of age and tries to obtain a college loan or a first car.  And in cases of divorce or abuse, it’s important that parents listen extra carefully.

"I had one 8-year-old who told his mother, 'Daddy buys things with a card with my name on it,'" Foley said. "Mom didn't believe him. ... It took the kid three years to finally prove it to the mother. He snuck a bill out of the house with his name on it."

The ID Theft Resource Center has a detailed page of information about child ID theft and how to deal with it — including special instructions on how to ask for a child’s credit report — at its Web site.

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