updated 9/24/2008 2:53:59 PM ET 2008-09-24T18:53:59

Among the people Linda Foley is currently working to help are a 3-year-old whose Social Security number is being used by someone for work purposes. And there's a 5-year-old whose identity is linked to driver's licenses, arrest warrants for drunken driving, and a warrant for unpaid child support.

These stories may sound unusual, but Foley has heard of many such situations since she started the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center in 1999, and she's convinced that the poaching of children's identities is more common than anyone knows.

Because identity theft is typically associated with financial matters like the misuse of credit cards, most people don't consider the possibility that their child's personal information could be stolen and misused. But more than 34,000 identity theft reports to the Federal Trade Commission from 2005 to 2007 concerned children under age 18.

"I think we just see the tip of the iceberg, we don't know how deep this problem goes," said Foley.

One reason there is no clear figure for the number of children affected is that the crime often goes unnoticed for many years, explained Scott Mitic, chief executive of TrustedID, a Redwood, Calif., company that offers ID protection services.

Usually, there's a narrow time gap between the discovery and the theft, Mitic said of identity theft in general. "But in this age group, you're much more likely to see a lag."

Because children don't have complex financial lives, there is less opportunity to notice that something has gone awry than for adults who try to access loans, mortgages and credit cards — one major factor that plays into child identity theft going undetected for years.

8 tips to protect your child's identityA second major reason is that frequently, the thief is a parent or other relative of the child.

"In excess of 50 percent of all child ID theft, involves a perpetrator who is one of the parents or someone who is close to the family," estimated Foley, basing her figure on counseling experience and work with law enforcement agencies.

That was the case for Randy Waldron Jr., now 27, who has spent the last decade trying to clean up his reputation.

"My father began using my Social Security number in 1982," said Waldron. But his father was not a part of his life as a child, and it wasn't until sixteen years later, when Waldron was applying for college, that it was discovered he had run up a total of $22.5 million in debt in his son's name.

The tally included myriad accounts from unpaid utility bills to defaulted credit cards and back taxes. There was even an unpaid storage facility rental that ballooned to a $10,000 debt.

"It took many years to correct it," Waldron said, estimating he has spent about $30,000 in attorney fees to clear his name. "I am still hounded by credit card companies, I am still hounded by collection agencies."

Waldron, who lives in Revere, Mass., has worked with Foley in handling his own personal matters, and is now trying to start an organization on the East Coast to help other victims, the Center for Compromised Identities and Child Identity Theft.

Though you may feel secure in your own family, another recurring scenario is that a child's Social Security number becomes associated with a different name — a technique that's sometimes used by an undocumented immigrant or someone who is trying to avoid child support payments. "As amazing as it sounds, it is still very difficult for an employer to establish that a Social Security number they've been given corresponds to the person they are employing," said TrustID's Mitic.

"The reason thieves prey on children is for one simple fact; it's because a child in this country is born into a society where you're required to have a Social Security number, and that Social Security number gives you a clean credit record, a clean slate," Waldron said. "If a child identity thief gets a hold of a child's Social Security number at this instant, the parent may not know for 18 years."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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