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Special section Child identity theft

Identity thieves are moving past adults and targeting children.

Stolen innocence: Child identity theft

Identity thieves have moved beyond adults in their quests for more victims. Now they're targeting children.

Law enforcement officials and consumer advocates say criminals are stealing the Social Security numbers of children and using them to usurp the children's identities. Since the crimes usually aren't uncovered until the victims try to establish credit, they can go undetected for years.

Five percent of the complaints the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, received in 2005 regarding identity theft were from individuals younger than age 18. 

"In terms of consumers who've contacted us, the number is growing," says Joanna Crane, FTC spokeswoman. Complaints have risen 2 percent over the past two years.

The children's identities are used to obtain credit cards, get driver's licenses or open accounts. Often the information is sold for use by illegal immigrants or individuals attempting to restart their lives and avoid arrest.

Steve Frasher, spokesman for the Riverside Police Department in Riverside, Calif., calls the thieves "phantoms." He says most don't use their real names, their addresses are fictitious or they live in abandoned residences, and they often order products by phone or online.

"Typically we catch identity thieves through unrelated search warrants or traffic stops -- an officer may see large amounts of mail that do not belong to the suspect," says Frasher. "In some cases, the thief will have over 50 persons' identifying information."

Frasher suggests the best defense is vigilance.

The key to credit
Consumer advocates attribute the escalation to the early issuing of Social Security numbers and the overuse of these numbers.

A combination of names, addresses and other personal information is useful, but a Social Security number is the key that thieves use to provide themselves with unlimited access to credit.

Parents who want to claim their child for a tax deduction are required to have a Social Security number for a child older than 1. They can acquire the number for a newborn by applying at a Social Security office, by mail or they can receive the child's number by the Enumeration at Birth program. This process, which began in 1989, enables parents to simply fill out the information at the hospital.

Children receive numerous requests for their Social Security numbers as proof of identity from schools, medical and insurance companies, financial institutions, and cell phone providers.
No federal law forbids a vendor or organization from asking for a Social Security number.

Access granted
Contrary to common belief, credit agencies don't begin a credit history on an individual until the individual's identifying information is used to open a credit account. This information can include name, age, address and Social Security number. 

Thieves bank on this and the fact that neither child nor parents check to see if a credit report exists. This gives the thief an ample amount of time to create a new life using the victim's information.

The robber armed with the necessary information can fraudulently open bank, credit card and utility accounts, falsely obtain a job, and file taxes.

Gabriel Jimenez was robbed of his identity when he was 12 years old. Now a recent college graduate, he's been financially crippled by the dilapidated credit the thief left behind.  He avoids credit and lenders fearing hiked up interest rates. He's currently attempting to get his credit report corrected, Social Security number changed and law enforcement's help.

David Date of Santa Clara, Calif., discovered the misuse of his Social Security number a couple days before New Year's in 2004 when he was 17 years old.

He was attempting to open a checking and savings account at a local Wells Fargo. The representative put David's name, address, phone number and Social Security number into the computer. But something was wrong.

"They said, 'Are you sure this is your Social Security number?' I said I was absolutely sure," says Date. He went home to get the card. 

"The banker told us that there was another Social Security number under a different person's name and suggested that we go to the police," says Date.

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