|7/21/2007 – For almost half of his life, Gabriel Jimenez, 25, has been sharing his identity with another person.
His mother, Jeri Marks, first discovered the problem when he was 11, after filing taxes for work he did as a child model. Someone had already filed taxes, she was told by the Internal Revenue Service. Although she notified the police, the I.R.S. and the Social Security Administration, the problem continued, she recalled in an interview.
After a few years, she requested her son’s file with the Internal Revenue Service and found an illegal immigrant who was working using the number.
“He said he would give me his refund if I let him continue to use the number,” said Ms. Marks, who lives in Chicago, adding that she asked him to stop using it.
But the problem did not stop there and as Gabriel reached adulthood, his problems have only become worse.
Child identity theft is a growing problem in the United States. The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that accepts identity fraud complaints, received more than 11,600 identity theft reports in 2005 for victims 18 years old or under, nearly double the 6,512 reported in 2003.
The F.T.C. and privacy specialists caution against blowing the problem out of proportion. Complaints involving children make up only about 5 percent of the agency’s total reports of identity theft — which have been at the top of the consumer fraud list for the last several years — and much of the fraud involving children is the work of a parent or relative.
Still, said Betsy Broder, assistant director for the commission’s division of privacy and identity protection, “there’s probably less known about this type of identity theft because it’s less reported.”
In addition, she said, “people may not even realize they’ve been a victim until they’re adults and they try to get credit.”
Children’s identities are used in much the same way as those stolen from adults, as a basis for credit cards, bank accounts, utility service, insurance, even employment. In some instances, the culprit may live the life of a model citizen working, paying bills on time and providing few red flags to indicate that there is a problem.
In others cases, they may run up tens of thousands of dollars in bills, work and fail to pay taxes or develop a criminal history — with none of that becoming apparent to the victims until they are young adults.
“Protect your child’s information as carefully as you protect your own,” said Linda Foley, who founded the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. “Jealously guard Social Security numbers and only give them out when vitally necessary.”
In a world where Social Security numbers are typically applied for at birth and the Internet has opened the door to an array of new scams, the task may seem daunting. But privacy experts say taking a few simple steps can help to protect a child’s identity.
First, when filling out forms where a Social Security number is requested, question whether it is really necessary. Certainly, it is needed for tax purposes and will most likely be requested by financial institutions. But is it really needed by schools, sports organizations or other community groups?
Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said there were very few situations that would require the numbers to be provided. Typically, he said, they are needed for filing for government benefits.
Ms. Foley added: “The question a parent should be asking anyone who requests a Social Security number for a child is, Why do you need it and what happens if I don’t give it to you? You’ll find surprisingly 50 percent of the time they don’t need it.”
Specialists suggest that parents should also shred any old documents with Social Security numbers, not carry actual Social Security cards with them and do not use the card for routine identification.
The Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org) explains the various types of identity theft and what victims should do when their identity is stolen. In addition, the center created a Web-based educational program last October to teach teenagers about identity theft and how they could make themselves less vulnerable.
The site warns teenagers about putting information on blogs and social networking sites and provides details on reading a credit report and what they should do if they discover they are a victim.
Detecting the problem can be difficult, though. While adults may check their credit history regularly, there would seem little reason for a child to do so.
Frank Blackwood, a father of two in Houston, checked to see if his young daughters had credit histories after seeing a television program about criminals stealing the Social Security numbers of infants.
“I called a credit bureau and gave them both of my daughters’ Social Security numbers,” Mr. Blackwood said, noting that one was about 6 months old at the time and the other 2. “The lady pulled them up and there was a long silence followed by the words ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
Mr. Blackwood said he unsuccessfully tried to get a copy of the girls’ credit reports. Trans Union, a credit reporting bureau, said that according to its records no credit histories exist and they notified the family of that at the time while also taking steps to protect their credit until the age of 18.
But Mr. Blackwood remained concerned and is now working with LifeLock, a company based in Tempe, Ariz., that for $10 a month monitors credit reports for adults and cleans them up when there is a problem. Children can be added for $25 a year. There are numerous companies like LifeLock, and the major credit bureaus have similar programs. They also regularly place fraud alerts on credit reports requiring that the consumer be notified when an application for credit is made using their information.
“If you become the victim of identity theft, we cover all the losses and fix the problem, up to $1 million,” said Todd Davis, founder and chief executive of LifeLock.
But, identity theft specialists note that most of the services being provided by companies like LifeLock are available to consumers free. Consumers are entitled to a free annual check of their credit report and there is no charge for placing a fraud alert, just the headache of remembering to renew it every 90 days.
Ms. Broder with the Federal Trade Commission said parents should look for clues of identity theft in the mail.
“If all of a sudden your child starts receiving unsolicited offers of credit and they’re 6, think twice,” she said. “Of course, if you get contacted by debt collectors, that’s an obvious red flag.”
If such warnings occur, she said, the parent should apply for the child’s credit report (this step also means proving that you are the parent) and, if the report exists, put a fraud alert on it immediately.
But as Ms. Marks and Mr. Jimenez have discovered, even when the identity theft is revealed, it can be nearly impossible to bring to an end.
Over the years they worked with the I.R.S. and Social Security with only intermittent success. Mr. Jimenez, who manages a sales team at CareerBuilder, continues to try to clear his name.
After he moved from his home to attend college at Northwestern University, Mr. Jimenez was denied phone service, gas and electricity because, he was told, he already had accounts. At 20, he went to set up a bank account only to be denied because someone opened up an I.R.A. using his information. He tried to obtain auto insurance only to find someone was trading on his information there, too.
Soon, issues began developing with his credit report.
In recent years, he has gotten most of the erroneous information cleared from his credit history. Still, he can rent only apartments with utilities included in the rent, and his credit rating is ruined. “It seems the only one being affected by this is me,” he said.