Imagine a mother and father's confusion as they are told their 5-month-old child owes $30,000 for a recently purchased car.
Think of the terror a 16-year-old experiences when learning that a $725,000 mortgage in his or her name has come due, or a mother's speechlessness at being told her 6-year-old daughter owes taxes on her wages earned last year.
It all sounds too bizarre to be true, but these are examples of real-life nightmares that have happened to parents across the U.S. in the past couple of years, as the identities of their young children have been stolen and used to rack up thousands of dollars in bills, or to obtain fraudulent employment or even driver's licenses.
It's all evidence of a frightening but growing trend — children's Social Security Numbers (SSNs) being stolen and used to commit fraud.
Carnegie Mellon University recently completed a study of the growing trend, and issued a report warning parents that their identities aren't the only ones that need protection from theft or fraud —those of their children do as well.
The report, entitled “Child Identity Theft: New Evidence Indicates Thieves Are Targeting Children for Unused Social Security Numbers," examined the identities of more than 40,000 children across the U.S., and found that an alarming 10 percent of them had been stolen at some point in the past few years.
The children affected ranged in age from as young as a few months old, to teenagers, with the fraud against each individual child ranging in scope from a few hundred dollars to close to a million dollars.
“Parents are already struggling to handle the threats of cyberspace, including securing their own computers and talking with their children about the many risks in cyberspace, from online predators to cyber-bullying," said Dena Heratos Tsamitis of Carnegie Mellon's CyLab in the report. “This trend in child identity theft is added weight on their shoulders."
In Utah, spokespersons from the state attorney general's office told news outlet KSL.com they are currently investigating more than 500 cases of child identity theft.
State authorities set up a dedicated website with cautionary information and tips for parents, where they can file reports if they believe their child's identity or SSN may have been stolen. The attorney general's office also started a free program Utah parents can enroll their children in to help safeguard them from identity theft. To date, nearly 14,000 children have enrolled, according to KSL.com.
The troubling trend is also growing in Indiana, Fox28 news recently reported.
Bill Stanczkiewicz of the Indiana Youth Institute told Fox28 that children's “blank financial backgrounds" make it easier for criminal activity such as identity theft to go unnoticed for a longer period of time.
He said an application using a child's previously unused SSN will come up as a first-time application, which makes it much more likely to be approved.
Stanczkiewicz said parents need to be especially cautious with their children's personal information.
“You need to be very careful who you give your child's information to," he said. “Ask them why they're using it."
He added, if you are asked to enter your child's information online, look for a little padlock symbol at the bottom of the site's page, which indicates the site is secure.
For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) information page on ID Theft and Data Security. If you are positive your identity has been stolen, a report should be filed with the FTC.