Further, some parental thieves refuse to believe they've done anything immoral or illegal. As in other cases of parental theft -- such as raiding custodial accounts, swiping money from trust funds or selling off savings bonds given as birthday presents -- the parents may justify their behavior as ultimately benefiting, or at least not hurting, the victims.

"The rationale is, 'I'll pay it off, (and) they'll never be harmed,'" Foley said. "If some of the ill-gotten gain is spent on the kids, this attitude is reinforced. But if you didn't pay your own bills, what makes you think you're going to do the right thing now? You still have the same poor money management skills that caused you the problem in the first place."

And such identity theft is far from a victimless crime. Parental ID thieves:

Put long-lasting black marks on their children's credit. Many identity theft victims learn of the crimes when they've been turned down for credit, denied apartments or jobs, quoted higher-than-normal insurance rates or contacted by collection agencies threatening to take them to court. The average identity theft victim spends many hours trying to clean up the mess, and the problems can persist for years. Sometimes, it's not even possible to fix the messes.

Put their children in an impossible position. Because identity theft can't be cleaned up without a police report, parental thieves force their children to choose between loyalty to parents and continuing fallout from compromised credit.

Damage their children emotionally by using them for personal gain. Like victims of sexual abuse, these identity theft victims were betrayed by people who are supposed to protect them, said Charles Nelson, a San Diego psychologist who has studied the issue for the Identity Theft Resource Center. The victims can wind up having real trouble trusting others and forming relationships, Nelson said.

Like Foley, Nelson strongly recommended therapy for victims to mitigate, but not erase, the violation they feel.

"The victims will deal with the consequences forever," Foley said.

If you're a victim or fear your child has become one, here are some suggestions:

Get informed. The Identity Theft Resource Center has fact sheets and other information for victims, including "Identity Theft and Children," "When You Personally Know the Identity Thief" and "To Order a Credit Report for a Child" if you suspect fraud.