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Rise In Child Identity Theft Prompts Push For Solutions

Gerry Smith   |   December 21, 2011    8:04 AM ET

"Burdened Beginnings" is a series examining the problem of child identity theft. Other stories in the series can be found here.

When Jennifer Andrushko applied for public aid two years ago, a state employee entered her son Carter's Social Security number into a computer and discovered something strange: The boy appeared to have been earning wages for the past eight years.

"I thought, 'How could this be happening? He's only three years old,'" Andrushko said.

It turned out an undocumented immigrant had been using Carter's number to acquire jobs since before he was born. But Carter proved relatively fortunate. Unlike many child identity theft victims who do not realize their credit is ruined until they reach adulthood, his case was caught while he was young, giving him time to recover his good name.

In Carter's case, the crime was foiled by a unique campaign underway in Utah to eradicate the growing problem of child identity theft. The state cross-references an employment database with a list of children receiving public assistance to reveal people who have used children's Social Security numbers to secure employment. Since 2007, Utah's checks have found "thousands" of instances of child identity theft, including one in which nine people used a nine-year-old's Social Security number to gain employment, according to Utah Assistant Attorney General Richard Hamp.

Utah's successful efforts highlight the existence of potentially potent responses that can be wielded to limit the problem of child identity theft, an emerging crime that leaves young adults with tattered financial histories. But such efforts remain patchy and scarce, providing thieves with substantial opportunities to tap into the pristine credit histories of children, experts say. Parents too willingly hand over their children's Social Security numbers to schools and health care providers, and these institutions are not sufficiently vigilant about preventing the data from falling into malevolent hands. One agency alone -- the Social Security Administration -- could significantly reduce the vulnerability by making it easier for credit agencies to discern that a given Social Security number belongs to a child, experts say.

"All of us have a little bit to do with solving the problem...We are no longer going to passively hand our children over to bad guys, who are only focused on exploiting their good names," Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at the security firm McAfee, said at a July forum on child identity theft.

Last year, more than 18,000 cases of child identity theft were reported to the Federal Trade
Commission, compared with about 6,500 cases in 2003. The real figure, however, is probably much higher because the crime often goes undetected, experts say. ID Analytics estimates that more than 140,000 children are victims of identity theft each year, based on a one-year study of those enrolled in the firm's identity protection service.

In the largest study on child identity theft to date, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that 10 percent of children were victims of identity theft, compared with less than 1 percent of adults. The study, which was published this spring, analyzed more than 800,000 records -- including 40,000 belonging to minors -- compromised by data breaches in 2009 and 2010. The data was provided by the credit monitoring service Debix.

The stolen identities were used to purchase homes and cars, open credit card accounts, gain employment and obtain driver's licenses, the report found. The youngest victim was five months old. In one case, eight people were suspected of opening 42 accounts and racking up more than $725,000 in debt using a 17-year-old's Social Security number.

Thieves now exploit a gap in the system used by the three major credit bureaus to check consumer credit. When the bureaus pull reports, they look for matching names, birthdates and Social Security numbers. But identity thieves escape detection by pairing a child's number with a different name and birth date, creating the appearance of a consumer who is applying for credit for the first time. Debix says it recently ran credit reports on 381 cases of confirmed child identity theft and found that credit reports only turned up fraudulent activity in four cases, or 1 percent.

Experts say the Social Security Administration could fix this flaw by allowing companies to validate whether a given Social Security number belongs to a child. Since 2008, companies have been able to check this information with the Social Security Administration, but the agency charges a $5,000 fee upfront, plus $1 for each check, because the service is not part of the agency's mission, according to agency spokeswoman Kia Green.

Bo Holland, chief executive at Debix, said companies are likely unwilling to pay those fees, so Congress should pass a law that funds the agency to provide the service at no charge.

"It would stop every one of these attacks we've seen," Holland said.

Meanwhile, unique partnerships are forming in a growing effort to stop child identity theft. In January, Utah officials plan to team up with TransUnion, a credit bureau, to launch a new program aimed at catching identity theft of all children in Utah, not just those who receive public aid.

"It should effectively shut down people opening credit on kids' numbers," Hamp said.

Some also say lenders should be more diligent by raising questions about suspicious loan applicants -- such as older applicants with thin or empty credit files -- and requiring more documentation to qualify for loans.

"How can somebody open up any kind of account with just a name and Social on its own?" Stuart Pratt, president of the Consumer Data Industry Association, the trade association for the three credit reporting agencies, said at a July forum on child identity theft. "Authentication should be much more than that. It has to be robust."

For decades, most children did not have Social Security numbers. Then in the late 1980s, the Social Security Administration began requiring that parents list their children's numbers to claim them as dependents on their tax returns. This led to a rapid expansion of newborns being assigned pristine credit slates that are left unchecked until their 18th birthday, making them particularly attractive to identity thieves.

Many child identity theft cases are not caught sooner because laws do not permit minors to request their credit reports, according to Mark Fullbright, a fraud specialist with Identity Theft 911. If teens could access their credit reports at 16, victims would have time to restore their credit "before they turn 18 and everything counts," Fullbright said.

Instead, many victims are like Jaleesa Suell, of Oakland, Calif., whose identity was stolen to open a credit card when she was 17 but went undiscovered until she turned 21 and was denied her first credit card. The unpaid debt, which totaled $300, went to a collection agency, destroying her credit, she said.

Now 22, Suell has spent the last six months disputing the fraud with Plains Commerce Bank, based in South Dakota, where the account was opened. Before accepting the charges were fraudulent, the bank insisted that Suell provide a full police report. But the Oakland Police Department has refused to provide such a report because $300 does not meet the department's threshold.

Identity Theft 911, which is working pro-bono to help Suell, plans to write letters to the FDIC, FTC and the Better Business Bureau to pressure the bank to "do the right thing," according to Kelly Colgan, a spokeswoman for Identity Theft 911.

If her case is not resolved, Suell fears she will graduate college in May and be unable to rent an apartment or acquire student loans for graduate school due to her damaged credit.

"I'm at an impasse," she said. "It's extremely frustrating."

Even those who have resolved their cases have faced roadblocks. On the day after her 18th birthday, Katrina Haywood used her credit for the first time to apply for Internet service. She was denied. Then she was denied an apartment, a bank account, and jobs at retail stores in Sacramento.

The reason: Her credit report included a list of unpaid credit cards, utilities and payments to tow truck companies totaling about $6,000. The debt was accrued by her mother, she said.

"I was really upset," Haywood said. "I tried to clear it myself but didn't know how to do it and didn't get very far."

But recently, Haywood was able to acquire a detailed police report that proved she was only 11 when the fraud began. She sent the report to the three credit bureaus, which quickly removed the bad debt from her name.

Now, Haywood has a job at a clothing store at a mall. She has opened her first bank account. And this month, she moved into her first apartment with her 1-year-old daughter.

"Everything is going good now," Haywood said. "I have a fresh start."

In Push For Data, Schools Expose Students To Identity Theft

  |   December 15, 2011    8:30 AM ET

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Foster Children Struggle To Recover From Identity Theft

Gerry Smith   |   December 5, 2011   11:00 AM ET

"Burdened Beginnings" is a series examining the problem of child identity theft. Other stories in the series can be found here.

SAN DIEGO -- After bouncing between a dozen foster and group homes here in this seaside town where the Pacific shore meets the Laguna Mountains, Mercediz Hand wanted at least one thing in her adult life: a stable home.

But after aging out of foster care, Hand discovered someone had been using her identity since she was 10, taking out a mortgage and racking up $3,000 in unpaid cellphone bills.

Her credit was ruined. This summer, she slept in her car, a 2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, because she could not qualify for an apartment. Then her car was repossessed because she defaulted on a loan with a 21 percent interest rate -- the lowest rate that lenders would offer. She finally found a landlord who did not check her credit, but she wants to move because her apartment is infested with roaches and termites.

Sitting outside a coffee shop on a recent afternoon, the 24-year-old mother of two said she is considering filing for bankruptcy.

"It should be easier to get these things fixed, but it's not," she said in an interview. "It doesn't go away."

Experts say foster children are particularly vulnerable to identity theft because their personal information passes through many hands, increasing the chances their Social Security numbers will be used to commit fraud.

Now, lawmakers and child welfare advocates are looking at ways to protect the financial reputations of foster children amid growing concern over child identity theft. With increased frequency, thieves are hijacking children's unblemished Social Security numbers to take out credit cards, car loans and mortgages, thereby destroying the credit histories of young adults.

This fall, President Obama signed a law with a provision that requires all states to run credit checks on older foster children and help resolve cases of identity theft before they age out of the system.

But experts say that is not enough. The real problem, they say, is that foster children's Social Security numbers are overexposed. Matt Cullina, who has adopted three foster children, said he receives five to seven ID cards each year that include their full name, date of birth and Social Security number -- more than enough information to commit identity theft.

"There's probably no other segment of the population that has ID cards with those three pieces of information on it," Cullina, chief executive of Identity Theft 911, said at a July forum on child identity theft.

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) has introduced legislation, the Foster Youth Financial Security Act, that goes further by prohibiting states from using Social Security numbers to identify foster children. The bill, which is still pending, would help protect foster children from identity theft by reducing the public exposure of their sensitive information, according to Amy Harfeld, a policy consultant for the Children's Advocacy Institute in San Diego.

"The point is, we need to stop putting kids' Social Security numbers on their ID cards and passing them around like candy," Harfeld said at the forum, which was hosted by the Federal Trade Commission.

Last year, more than 18,000 child identity theft complaints were reported to the commission, compared with about 6,500 cases in 2003. The increase comes as the recession has left many Americans with greater need for clean sources of credit, making the temptation to hijack a child's pristine record even greater.

But the real figure is probably much higher, experts say, because the crime often goes undetected until victims turn 18 and find their damaged credit is preventing them from acquiring student loans, jobs or apartments. ID Analytics estimates more than 140,000 children are victims of identity theft each year, based on a one-year study of those enrolled in the firm's identity protection service.

The profile of a child identity thief takes different forms. In some cases, family members who have ruined their own credit steal the identities of their children. In others, organized criminals target institutions such as foster homes where children's identities are lying around virtually unguarded.

Last February, Felix Nkansah, 28, of New York, was sentenced to six years in prison for participating in an identity theft ring that stole records of children in foster homes to file fraudulent tax returns.

Experts say such cases highlight the porous security of children's data in foster care, where personnel are focused on protecting children, but not their identities.

"Record management at foster agencies is a joke," Dan Hatcher, a professor at University of Baltimore Law School who does research on poverty issues, said at the forum. "Caseworkers either are not looking for these issues, or when they spot it, they don't know what to do."

In a study of about 2,100 foster children in Los Angeles County, more than 100 children (about 5 percent) had accounts opened in their names, with an average $3,600 in debt. One foster child was found to have a $217,000 home loan, according to the study, which was released in August by the California Office of Privacy Protection, a state agency.

Thieves who steal the identities of foster children are targeting a group that already faces financial obstacles. Less than 3 percent earn four-year college degrees after leaving the foster care system. By age 24, less than half find full-time jobs, and nearly 40 percent have been homeless, according to a study by the Children's Advocacy Institute and First Star, a nonprofit that works with victims of child abuse and neglect.

Mercediz Hand has been homeless twice, but not for a lack of money. She has a steady job working at a homeless shelter. But her credit is so damaged that she and her husband, who ruined his own credit, and their two children, ages 7 and 4, are forced to live in an unsafe neighborhood. On a recent night, a stranger assaulted her outside her apartment, she said.

"I don't want to stay where I'm at. It's not a good neighborhood," Hand said, wearing sunglasses to hide her badly swollen left eye. "But this is the only kind of apartment I can get because my credit is so horrible. I'm renting from anyone who is willing to rent to me."

In the foster care system, a wide range of people have access to a child's Social Security number, including parents, grandparents, foster parents, social workers and group home personnel. Each time a foster child is moved to a new home, their personal information goes with them, further exposing data that should be kept private.

Foster children are also less equipped to fix their credit problems because they do not have the safety net that family often provides, according to Lisa Schifferle, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. Every year, about 35,000 foster children age out of the system nationwide without being adopted.

"Once these children are emancipated from foster care, clean credit is essential in their process to establishing a strong start to adulthood," Schifferle said at the child identity theft forum.

Foster children are also more likely to become identity theft victims because they come from struggling families who may view their pristine Social Security numbers as a new source of credit, Cullina said. And children are less likely to report family members to police, making it more difficult to remove the fraud from a credit report, he said.

As more foster children have found their credit destroyed, child welfare advocates have sought to help. Over the summer, First Star and Identity Theft 911 taught 30 foster children from around Los Angeles how to protect themselves from identity theft during a five-week training course on the UCLA campus. First Star President Peter Samuelson said he plans to replicate the pilot program, which was funded through donations, across the country next summer.

Here in San Diego, the fallout of identity theft has presented yet another hardship for young adults who have seen their share. Mercediz Hand entered foster care after her uncle, a registered sex offender who lived with her family, tried to molest her, she said.

She discovered her identity had been hijacked when she ran her first credit report at 18. She has only been able to see a report from one of the three credit reporting agencies because she is unable to answer a security question: the amount of her mortgage.

"I keep telling them, 'I didn't open up a mortgage. I have no idea what you're talking about,'" she told The Huffington Post. "I'm a little scared to find out what's on the other reports."

When Suamhirs Rivera aged out of the foster care system in 2008, he tried to apply for an apartment and a cellphone, but was denied. That was when he learned someone had used his identity to rack up $75,000 on 30 credit cards while he was in foster care, he said. His credit score was 350, the lowest possible.

"I didn't know what to do," Rivera said in an interview. "I thought, 'Where the hell am I going to live if I'm not able to rent an apartment? What's going to happen to me? How am I going to get a job or how am I going to be a productive member of society?'"

Rivera, now 21, filed a police report, but still has been unable to remove the debt from his credit report, he said. As a result, he pays steep upfront costs for basic needs, putting down a $460 deposit for a cellphone and a $2,750 deposit for his $795-a-month apartment. He is unable to afford a car because the interest rate would be too high, he said. Three banks have sued him for failure to pay the debt, he said.

"It's been a constant battle," Rivera said.

Helena Kelly says banks would not give her loans because her credit was damaged by identity theft.

Helena Kelly, who was placed in foster care at age 10 after her mother went to jail for shoplifting, lived with 14 different people, shuffled between aunts, parents, cousins and a foster home. Along the way, someone stole her identity to take out student loans and lease cars and an apartment, ruining her credit, she said.

Now a full-time student at San Diego City College, Kelly, 22, said banks would not give her a student loan or a car loan because of her bad credit, so she paid for school and bought a car by borrowing government-issued student loans.

She spent three weeks this summer sleeping on friends' couches because she could not qualify for an apartment. She now lives in transitional housing for former foster children, but must leave soon because she is taking custody of her younger sister.

Meanwhile, someone is still using her identity, she said. When she applied for cable recently, she learned she had an outstanding balance dating to when she was 11. Kelly, along with Hand and Rivera, are working on their credit problems with the help of the Children's Advocacy Institute in San Diego.

Kelly said she feels angry that even after leaving foster care, her fate is still not under her control.

"My whole life in foster care, I was punished for choices my parents made," Kelly said. "Now I'm being punished as an adult for choices a stranger made under my name. I just want to live for the actions and choices that I make."

Family Secrets: Parents Prey On Children's Identities As Victims Stay Silent

  |   November 11, 2011    8:43 AM ET

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Identity Thieves Target Children For Unused Social Security Numbers

Gerry Smith   |   August 21, 2011    9:21 AM ET

"Burdened Beginnings" is a series examining the problem of child identity theft. Other stories in the series can be found here.

Every few weeks, Stephanie McManis receives a phone call from a collection agency asking for someone she never met. She recently opened a letter from a bank threatening to sue her for defaulting on a loan she never took out. She checks her credit report monthly, disputing late payments on emergency room visits she never made.

McManis, 31, says she is a victim of identity theft, a well-documented problem these days. One detail elevates her case from the typical, however: her identity was stolen when she was 12 years old. Now, nearly two decades later, she still can't separate herself from a checkered financial past created before she was old enough to drive.

"It's frustrating because I'm constantly having to jump through hoops," McManis said. "I'm resigned to the fact that I will be dealing with this for the rest of my life."

Experts say children represent an emerging market for identity thieves who steal their Social Security numbers because they offer clean slates that can be used to commit fraud for years without detection. Many victims don't learn about the crime until they are young adults and find their credit in tatters as they are rejected for student loans, jobs and places to live.

Even as recent data breaches at large corporations have raised awareness about safeguarding consumer information, children's Social Security numbers are lying around little-guarded places not accustomed to fearing cyber-attacks -- like schools and pediatric centers -- constituting a goldmine for criminals seeking untainted identities.

If left unchecked, child identity theft poses risks not only to young adults, but also to the financial system by eroding confidence that loans will be repaid, experts say.

"There's a systemic financial impact, as well as what we should be doing morally, ethically and legally to help our children have a future that they design on their own," Michelle Dennedy, a privacy consultant and founder of, said at a July conference on child identity theft sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission.

With increasing frequency, cyberthieves are hijacking those futures, tapping the pristine Social Security numbers of children for adult purposes, enabling undocumented immigrants to gain employment and people with tainted credit to secure credit cards, mortgages and car loans, experts say.

Utah officials have started checking a state employment database with a list of Utah children on public aid, finding "thousands" of workers using children's identities to acquire jobs, according to Utah Assistant Attorney General Richard Hamp. In one recent case, nine people were using a 9-year-old's Social Security number to gain employment, Hamp said.

"I have prosecuted a number of those cases at this stage and can tell you -- I've got kids that are brick masons. I've got kids that are waitresses. I've got kids that are carpenters," Hamp said at the FTC forum.


Last year, about 8 percent of identity theft complaints came from victims 19 and younger, slightly more than the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission. More than 140,000 children are victims of identity theft each year, according to ID Analytics, which sells identity fraud protection and based its estimate on a one-year review of children enrolled in its services.

Both figures are probably much higher, experts say, because parents typically don't monitor their child's credit report, assuming one should not exist. And even if they did, the fraud may go undetected by credit bureaus because identity thieves pair children's Social Security numbers with new names and birthdays.

Debix, which sells identity protection services, says it recently ran credit reports on 381 cases of confirmed child identity theft and found credit reports only turned up fraudulent activity in four cases, or 1 percent.

Child identity theft is driven largely by organized crime, but undocumented immigrants and family members are also using children's Social Security numbers to start new lives or pay bills, experts say. Foster children are particularly vulnerable to identity theft because their personal information is floating through the foster-care system, experts say.

Jaleesa Suell entered foster care when she was 8 years old and was placed in six different foster families. At some point, someone used her identity to apply for a credit card, she said.

When Jaleesa turned 21 last year, she said she was denied her first credit card. Then she noticed on her credit report an account opened when she was 17 with payments in default. Despite six months of corresponding with credit bureaus and the bank, she has been unable to have the fraudulent payments removed.

She fears the issue won't be resolved in time for graduation when she will need credit to rent an apartment -- a cruel irony for someone who grew up in foster care.

"I've spent my life wondering if I'll have a place to stay," she said. "And now that my identity is stolen I find myself in the same circumstance."

To combat identity theft among foster children, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) has introduced legislation that would require states to annually obtain their credit reports and prohibit states from using their Social Security numbers to identify them.

"These youth already face so many unique challenges and it is unconscionable that we are seeing more and more evidence of identity theft that further hinders their ability to become self-sufficient young adults," Langevin said in a statement.

Jaleesa Suell's identity was stolen while she was 17 and in foster care.


In the largest study on child identity theft to date, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that 10 percent of children were victims of identity theft, compared with less than 1 percent of adults.

Though not scientific, the study, which was published this spring, analyzed more than 800,000 records, including 40,000 belonging to minors, that were compromised by data breaches in 2009 and 2010. The information was provided by Debix, which sells identity theft services and offers free scans for parents who want to find out if a credit file exists on their child.

The stolen identities were used to purchase homes and cars, open credit card accounts, gain employment and obtain driver's licenses, the report found. The youngest victim was five months old. In one case, eight people are suspected of opening 42 accounts and incurring more than $725,000 in debt using a 17-year-old's Social Security number.

Many child identity thefts begin with a cyber attack, according to Bo Holland, chief executive of Debix. Hackers are now using computer viruses and botnets, or networks of infected computers, to search for specific documents on computers such as tax records and health records, which contain children's Social Security numbers, Holland said.

Once stolen, children's Social Security numbers are sold to human traffickers or thieves looking to open fraudulent credit accounts, authorities say. Last fall, two men in Newark, Del., were convicted of stealing the identities of more than 93 victims, including 44 children, and using them to open 343 credit cards, 54 bank accounts and two shell businesses over six years, resulting in about $1 million in losses.

For $40 to $80, websites illegally sell 9-digit "credit privacy numbers," which are clean Social Security numbers mostly belonging to children, according to Jennifer Walker, who works in the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration.

And if thieves are unable to buy or steal a child's Social Security number, they may be able to guess it. In fact, children's numbers are easier to predict than adults' numbers thanks to a government program created in 1987, according to Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Social Security Administration's program encouraged parents to apply for their newborn's Social Security numbers at birth to prevent identity thieves from hijacking their child's Social Security numbers before they could apply for them.

But the program had the opposite effect because Social Security numbers have been issued in a predictable sequence based on when and where a child was born. So when nearly all children began receiving Social Security numbers at birth, thieves could infer all nine digits based on publicly available information, Acquisti said.

In June, the Social Security Administration hoped to fix this by assigning a randomized series of numbers, but the more predictable Social Security numbers will remain in effect for people born before this summer.

"We're talking about hundreds of millions of Social Security numbers that are still potentially predicable," Acquisti said. "We've made the job of identity theft way too easy."


While they have long focused on financial institutions, online thieves have also begun targeting organizations that store vast amounts of children's Social Security numbers, such as health care providers and schools. But those agencies often fail to properly safeguard the information or promptly disclose data breaches when they occur.

Last July, a Bronx man was charged with filing false tax returns by using Social Security numbers of children who were patients of pediatric cancer and other hospitals in New York City.

In January, health care insurer Health Net learned that computer servers containing data on nearly two million members, employees and health care providers went missing. But the company waited nearly two months to report the breach, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Then it began offering free credit-monitoring services to enrollees whose information may have been compromised.

That was when Simon Umscheid learned his 6-year-old son Ian was apparently the victim of identity theft. After the data breach at Health Net, an identity thief set up several bank accounts and bought jewelry and cable television service under his son's name, racking up about $14,000. Umscheid said the fraud is being resolved, but he remains angry with Health Net, which also suffered a major data breach in 2009.

"It's incredibly frustrating," he said. "My son obviously doesn't understand what's going on and we haven’t talked to him about it. You feel victimized."

Meanwhile, at least 26 states now collect Social Security numbers from students to track their future performance in the workplace, according to the Data Quality Campaign.

But schools have struggled to secure children's identities. The education sector represented 12 percent of all data breaches last year, according to the security firm Symantec. And this year, data breaches at schools have continued.

In one example, officials at Lancaster County School District in Lancaster, S.C., sent letters in April notifying parents that hackers had broken into a system housing the Social Security numbers of about 25,000 students. In June, two laptops containing Social Security numbers of 10,000 students and staff from northern Illinois were stolen from a car, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

"There are likely many schools that have exposed data that don’t understand how exposed it is," said Robert Hamilton, senior manager of product marketing at Symantec.

Some parents have fought efforts to collect sensitive information on their children. After strong opposition from parents and school boards, the Maine legislature this year removed language in a state law that required schools to collect student's Social Security numbers.

Such groundswells of protest should happen more often, privacy advocates say. Parents should be skeptical when giving out their child's Social Security numbers, particularly when there is no apparent need for it, Dennedy said.

"There's not enough education in the marketplace to tell parents to push back when someone asks you for their Social Security number to join a church canoe trip," she said at a forum last month. "They probably won't be trying to get a credit card in the canoe. I'm not sure why they're even asking for that kind of information."

Stephanie McManis, 31, says her identity was stolen when she was 12


For victims of child identity theft, the damage can take years to unwind. After graduating college in 2001, Stephanie McManis applied for her first credit card, but was rejected.

Only after she requested her credit report did she learn that someone else had used her identity since she was 12 years old, she said. Her credit report was "inches thick," she said, filled with unpaid mortgages, car loans, cell phone contracts and credit card debt.

McManis filed a report with her local police department and authorities tracked down the woman who was using her identity and living just a few hours away in Avon, Ohio, just west of Cleveland.

Avon Police Officer Kevin Krugman, who investigated the case, said the Social Security numbers of the two women are one digit off and he believed the confusion was caused by "nothing more than a clerical error" by someone at a credit agency, not identity theft.

"Their identities are tied together for good until they take care of it," Krugman said.

But privacy advocates familiar with McManis' case still believe she is a victim of identity theft. Dennedy said local police departments often do not want to conduct thorough investigations of identity theft because they do not have the time or resources. And if it was an honest mistake, Dennedy said, why is this woman still using McManis' Social Security number today?

"Cops don’t want to believe it's identity theft because they have to close their cases," Dennedy said. "They don't understand the harm. Even if it was an honest mistake, and you still can't get a house or a loan, the impact is the same. You're still stuck with someone else's bad credit."

A few years ago, McManis was denied a mortgage on a house because the other woman had filed for foreclosure. The issue was eventually straightened out, but the calls from collection agencies asking for hospital bill payments continue.

To this day, McManis does not know how her identity was stolen. She knows the woman's name and has found her Facebook page, but has never contacted her directly because she does not want to appear to threaten her. The woman did not return calls for comment.

"I'm angry at her but also frustrated with the system," McManis said. "I shouldn’t have to prove myself when I've had good credit my whole life."

5 tips for parents to protect their children from identity theft:

1. Don’t carry around a child’s Social Security card. This increases the risk of losing the card, which is the most common way identity thieves obtain a child’s information.

2. Be discriminating when asked for a child’s personal information. If it has to be provided, ask how it will be stored. If the information will not be retained, inquire how any record of it will be destroyed or returned.

3. Cross-shred documents with personal identifying information before disposing of them.

4. Don’t post children’s pictures online. Most digital cameras have geocoding features that embed within images the location where pictures were taken. This gives identity thieves information they can use to steal children’s identities.

5. Don’t give children their Social Security numbers until they understand how and why to protect the numbers.

Source: Identity Theft 911