By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/3/2005 4:36:28 PM ET 2005-03-03T21:36:28

Shiloh Puckett is 10 years old, but this Dallas-area 4th grader already has quite a history.  A credit history, that is.  Shiloh has had 17 credit cards, racked up thousands of dollars on her American Express bill and been approved for a $42,000 loan.

She is deep in debt and has been since she was just five. How does a child like Puckett get those credit cards and spend all that money? 

Her record is deceiving, because she is not a young criminal.

Puckett’s Social Security number was stolen several years ago. She is a young victim of identity theft, one of an estimated half a million children who joined her ranks last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

It is a crime, much like adult identity theft, which is spiraling out of control.

Theft from within the family
In Shiloh’s case, police collected hundred of pieces of evidence including credit cards, unpaid bills and loan applications. Prosecutors filed charges and the thief was sent to jail for six months. The culprit was Shiloh’s own mother, Cindy Puckett.

“I did it because I had to, as a means of necessity,” said Cindy Puckett. “I feel bad I did it, and I shouldn’t have done it. At the time, I didn’t really think it was wrong in the sense I was hurting my child.”

While Cindy Puckett served half a year in a Dallas jail, her daughter Shiloh was sent to live with a relative. They are reunited now, but the young girl’s credit is still blemished.

“I hope it sends a message to other parents,” said Cindy Puckett. “Don’t do that, it’s not worth it. Find other means.”

Shiloh Puckett’s case may seem unusual because of her mother’s involvement, but it’s not.  An advocacy group called the Identity Theft Resource Center identifies relatives as being involved in more than half of the child identity theft cases reported in the United States last year. 

“I don’t understand how a parent can do this to a child,” said Linda Foley, the center’s executive director. “This is an infant you hold in your arms when they are born and say I will protect you with my life. To go and sacrifice that life for their own selfish needs… it’s unexplainable to me.”

Children ideal target
The thief is not always someone who knows the child. In Oklahoma City, Jeremy Van Winkle has no idea who stole his children’s Social Security numbers. He was alerted to the problem when he filed his taxes early this year, anticipating a large refund.

The Internal Revenue Service notified him that he could not claim his four-year-old daughter and five-year-old son as dependents because another tax filer had already done so.

“I feel scared,” said Van Winkle. “Somebody out there knows about my kids, their numbers and obviously their birthdates; anything their Social Security number can bring up.”

The Oklahoma City family is expecting another child soon and needs the refund money.  They’re still waiting, as Van Winkle tries to sort out the confusion with the I.R.S.  In addition, he is changing Patricia and Devin’s Social Security numbers, a time-consuming process.

Foley suspects that identity theft of children is increasing so rapidly precisely because kids are such good targets. “They usually have a spotless record and because they aren’t using their credit, the crime can go undetected for years,” explained Foley.

Pulling families apart
That’s exactly what happened to Elizabeth Paradez when she was 10 years old.

The Fort Worth teenager had her credit stolen by her godmother, the woman she was named after.  Paradez didn’t discover what happened until eight years later, when she tried to buy a car and the salesmen told her she had a 14-page long negative credit report.

Her godmother said she’d make amends with the reporting agencies, but Paradez says her credit is still a mess.

“I never thought anyone in my family could do this to anyone, much less to me,” said Paradez, who is now 20. “It has changed everything for me.”

She had trouble getting a job due to her credit history, and she recently postponed her wedding for fear her credit record would then be linked to her husband-to-be.

There’s been an unexpected price, as well. Paradez’s mother filed a police report on the theft, so she could begin repairing her daughter’s credit. When she did so, other family members cut off contact with Paradez and her parents. Those relatives are angry about the report and say it should have remained a private family matter.

“This really has torn our family apart,” explained Melissa Paradez, Elizabeth’s mother.  “We’ve had no contact with much of our family for two years. They’re embarrassed it became public knowledge.”

Parents must be vigilant guardians
Foley says parents can help protect their children. “I think we have to be as vigilant regarding their information as we are in guarding their physical being,” she explained.  “Ask questions. Why does someone need their Social Security number.”

Foley said the information should never be given out on non-essential forms, like a sports team application.  She said schools often ask for the number, but they must provide children with an education whether they receive it or not.

She also recommends shredding all papers containing a Social Security number, like many medical forms. Foley's number one piece of advice is to keep the information under lock and key.

“Please moms, stop carrying your kids' Social Security numbers in your wallet,” said Foley. “That is an open invitation for theft. Yours shouldn’t be in there, either.”

Back in the Dallas area, Cindy Puckett vows she’ll try to clear her daughter’s credit. But, all her daughter cares about is that her mommy is back. “Well, I love her to pieces,” said Shiloh Puckett. “I’m glad she’s home.”

Janet Shamlian is an NBC News Correspondent, based in Dallas

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