Oct. 4, 2011 at 6:43 AM ET
Child ID theft is a scourge of the digital age -- a terrible crime that often sees parents ruining their own kids’ futures by taking out mortgages, car loans and other financial obligations in their names. But a new study shows that another kind of family-based ID theft, which rarely grabs headlines, might be much more prevalent: Stealing the identities of elderly parents.
Security firm ID Analytics looked at billions of credit applications and other related data recently to find people using the same Social Security number and last name, but different first names, with an eye toward determining the prevalence of child ID theft. The firm then narrowed the list by searching for pairs sharing SSNs who were 18 to 25 years apart in age, indicating a jump in generations. After tossing out typographical errors and other potential inaccuracies, the firm found roughly 500,000 kids in the U.S. under 15 sharing their SSNs and last names with adults who were 25-40, making them likely victims of ID theft by their own parents.
But the massive data analysis turned up an even more dramatic finding when head researcher Stephen Coggeshall tried looking for people in their 70s and 80s who were sharing their SSN and family name with someone roughly 20 years younger. The result: More than 2 million elderly adults who are sharing an SSN with their adult children.
"This was very surprising to me," Coggeshall said. "I didn't think there would be a substantially higher number than young parents using their kids' IDs."
The study is imprecise. For example, it's sometimes not possible strictly through data analysis to determine who is the criminal and who is the rightful SSN holder.
"But when you have a 60-year-old and an 80-year-old sharing an identity, it's unlikely that the 80-year-old is the one seeking credit," Coggeshall said.
ID Analytics, which sells credit application fraud-detection services to a wide variety of firms, has a unique ability to peer inside credit data to look for trends. The firm sees more than 1 billion credit applications per year, and is able to identify criminals from patterns in the applications. For example, criminals often apply for credit simultaneously using the same stolen data at dozens of companies, hoping one or two won't catch the fraud. Similarly, criminals use stolen information with minor adjustments -- changing the birthday on each application by one day in sequence, like Nov. 1, Nov. 2, Nov. 3, etc. Individual banks can't detect such crimes, but ID Analytics can.
The firm has recently turned to looking for macro trends in its data to help researchers examine larger ID theft trends. Last year, for example, ID Analytics announced that 40 million SSNs are attached to more than one name in the nation's credit system.
Evidence of widespread prevalence of elder identity theft represents a new wrinkle in society’s battle against this digital age crime.
“The realities of familial identity theft are far worse than anything you see in a soap opera. It is the ultimate in family betrayal,” Coggeshall said. “Most consumers think of this type of manipulation as something inflicted by a stranger or a criminal scamming the system, when in reality a lot of identity manipulation may be a betrayal by a trusted parent, child or another family member.”
Jaimee Napp, a consultant and expert on ID theft victim rights, said she wasn't surprised by the findings.
"Elder parents are often vulnerable and often dependent on caretakers who sometimes are children," Napp said. "Financial exploitation is a high yield, low risk crime. A crime can be easier for a child to commit against an older parent because of access to their information."
Many adult children feel entitled to their parents' money, she said, believing that it will come to them through inheritance anyway. They can also justify the crime when parents suffer from dementia or other mentally debilitating illnesses.
Elder family member ID theft hasn't gotten the attention of other identity crimes because it often happens silently, Napp said.
"These crimes have very low reporting because victims sometimes (are unable to report the crime), or because of embarrassment and shame that their child would do this," she said.
Elders hit by imposters end up facing all the headaches of other ID theft victims – tarnished credit, paperwork nightmares, collection calls, paying bills on behalf of criminals – but with the added emotional trauma of a family crime. Some victims just pay the bills rather than turn in a family member.
The crime falls under the larger category of elder financial abuse, which financial expert John Wasik has labeled "the crime of the 21st Century." An aging population with large retirement savings, combined with widespread unemployment, creates a recipe for elder theft.
A report by MetLife Mature Institute released in June found that elder Americans are robbed of $2.9 billion annually -- and that one-third of the crimes are committed by family, friends, and neighbors. That figure is likely low, however, because it only included published reports of elder crime.
Recent high-profile cases, such as the mysterious case of Hugette Clark, have shined some light on that issue, but familial ID theft involving older victims needs much more attention, Coggeshall said. The temptation to commit the crime only becomes greater as the U.S. economy limps along and high unemployment persists.
The study did not consider criminals who exploit both their children and their parents, a subject that might arise in later studies, Coggeshall said.
"People (commit) intergenerational identity theft because (they) don’t think it’s wrong, especially when the going gets tough," he said. "The biggest problem is the perpetrators tend to be the most aware and active credit seekers, and the victims often aren't in the credit market at all, so they don't discover the crime. ... The biggest lesson here is that even if you are in your 80s and think you aren't credit active, you are still at risk for your ID being stolen, not just buy a stranger but also by a family member."