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Related topics: debt, Social Security, credit score, fraud, Liz Weston

Parents are supposed to protect their children from harm, but some inflict long-lasting financial and emotional damage by using them to commit identity theft.

Some victimize offspring who are old enough to establish credit in their own right. Others use the Social Security numbers of their minor children to set up fraudulent accounts that the victims might not discover for years.

"When we first started hearing about it, we were shocked and horrified," said Beth Givens, the head of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "It turns out it is more common than you might think."

Linda Foley, the founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, also in San Diego, said she almost never heard about parent perpetrators when she and her husband established the center a decade ago. These days, though, they get several complaints a week from victims or from other adults who have uncovered the crimes.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"It just keeps getting bigger," said Foley, who fears the economic downturn and high unemployment will tempt more parents to cross the line.

Credit issuers take a parent's word

Normally, minors can't get credit cards, because people can't be held to a contract until they're 18. But thieves can get away with using minors' Social Security numbers because credit issuers may not demand proof of age or may be fooled by forged documents.

"The credit file begins with the first application, and the information given is taken as truth," Foley said.

Any of the following can be red flags that a child's identity has been stolen:

  • Preapproved credit card offers in the child's name (although these may also stem from a bank or college savings account).
  • Calls from collection agencies, bills or credit cards sent in the child's name.
  • An addict or someone with a history of fraud -- and who knows the child's Social Security number -- has a sudden infusion of cash or an improvement in lifestyle.
  • An Internal Revenue Service notice that the child's name or Social Security number is listed on another tax return.

One case that Foley vividly remembers: five children, all under age 9, whose Social Security numbers had been used by their mother to open fraudulent credit cards and other accounts. Their grandmother and the woman's first two husbands helped police prosecute the case, Foley said.

"She is a user, pure and simple," Foley said, fuming. "The children are nothing more than an opportunity to gain money she has not earned."

The extent of parental identity theft is unknown. The Federal Trade Commission found that 6% of victims identified the thieves as family members or other relatives, but the agency didn't publish statistics about how many of the credit hijackers were the victims' parents. (Actually knowing an identity thief is something of a rarity. More than half didn't know exactly how their personal information had been compromised, and of those who did, 84% didn't know the thieves personally.)

Parents, especially those of minor children, have unusual opportunities to steal. Not only do they know their children's Social Security numbers -- the key piece of information needed to open bogus accounts -- but they often can intercept any mail that could tip off other family members to the crime. Even if their transgressions are uncovered, many can rely on family loyalty to protect them from prosecution.

A person whose parent steals his or her identity often won't file a police report, a necessary step to establish the fact that the identity theft occurred. Without such a report, credit bureaus won't erase fraudulent accounts from the victim's files.