Patanisha Williams was a freshman at St. Mary's College in Moraga when she got two nasty surprises: a $600 MasterCard bill, and a $1,700 American Express bill. Although both credit cards did belong to the eighteen-year-old Oakland native, neither debt was hers. After running a credit check on herself, Williams says she was alarmed to discover that years before, her own father had used her Social Security number and a shortened version of her name, "Pat Williams," to run up all kinds of expenses. Her credit report featured charges for things no teenager ever would have purchased: furniture, for instance, and a car that had been bought and repossessed before she was even old enough to drive.
Unable to pay off the credit card bills, nor to pay her dorm fees without her father's help, Williams left St. Mary's for the decidedly less posh Laney junior college. Although her creditors offered to swallow the loss if she allowed them to conduct an investigation, she decided to spare her father the possibility of criminal charges. "They might have to prosecute, and I didn't want to go through all that," she says. "It was my father." Instead, Williams took a $5-an-hour job at the YMCA to pay down the debt, and eventually reached a settlement with the credit card companies to pay half of what was owed.
If only it had ended there. Williams is now 31, and still struggles to repair the credit damage done in her youth. Because of unpaid expenses her father made in her name, she says, she has had trouble reopening an account with PG&E or the phone company. An auto repossession worth $6,000 stuck around until she was 29. Williams says she also discovered that her father falsely used the identities of some of her five siblings, including her mentally disabled younger brother, in whose name her father ran up thousands of dollars in bills and declared bankruptcy. Although the family did sue on behalf of the disabled brother, and the case was settled out of court, she says her father has never made any payments. The rest of the family, like Williams, chose not to prosecute. "He picks the ones who are too nice, who love him too much to do it to," she says. "It's not that we have the best credit; we don't. It's just that he knows he won't get in trouble." Williams' father declined to comment for this story.
Welcome to one of the saddest chapters in the nation's rising stolen-identity problem: child identity theft. The problem among adults is already widely known. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9.9 million people discovered their identities had been stolen in 2002, and this year announced that the East Bay ranks sixth in the nation's metropolitan areas for ID theft. The FTC estimates that only 3 percent of the identity theft cases reported to the agency last year involved minors, but such cases are dramatically underreported, largely because of the emotional difficulty of reporting a relative to the authorities. Instead, victims of child identity theft are stuck with debts that haunt them for years after childhood. Many don't even realize they have problems until they turn eighteen and apply for their first college loan, auto lease, or apartment rental.
Identity theft is a crime to which children are particularly vulnerable. "A child is an easy mark, because a child doesn't have a way of checking his or her credit report," says Mark Jackson, deputy district attorney in Alameda County's High Tech Crimes Unit. By the time that child reaches eighteen and understands what a credit report is, the damage has been done ten or fifteen years ago. Since credit blemishes usually drop off a report after seven years, if the thief picks a young enough victim, they have a high chance of not being caught at all. Kids' clean credit histories also make their identities highly desirable. "You've got clean credit because no credit has ever been established in your name. It's a perfect mark," Jackson says.
Linda Foley, executive codirector of the Identity Theft Resource Center, says these thieves are sometimes strangers: people who dive through pediatricians' or pharmacists' Dumpsters looking for kids' personal information, surf the Web for Social Security numbers, or steal credit card offers, bills, or other financial papers out of mailboxes. However, she says the majority are parents or other caretakers with ready access to a child's information. Often these older relatives are chronic offenders, Foley says, who need an endless stream of cash to feed a drug, alcohol, or gambling habit. In Williams' case, she says that her father's habit was shopping. "I used to go with my Dad shopping at different places and they'd be like 'Your Ferragamos are in, in different colors,' as if he was rich," she remembers. "But we weren't, and I knew something was wrong. So when the money ran out, he still wanted to continue the lifestyle."
In some cases, Foley says, it's hard to blame the parents. "Occasionally we see it as a single act of desperation," she says. "Mom has ruined her own credit, the phone has been turned off, the gas and electricity are about to be, so she opens a new account using her child's information because it's clean. She needed it to pay the bills and put food on the table. I think we can all be sympathetic with that. But she's no more likely to pay those bills off than she was her own."
Another situation Foley has encountered are families in which the parents are illegal immigrants, but whose US-born children are entitled to Social Security numbers. The parents put the family's bills in the names of the children, and although they pay all the bills on time, when the children reach adulthood and apply for their own loans, they realize their credit is already maxed out. "It's a dilemma," says Foley. "They don't want to turn their parents over. Their parents have been wonderful parents, they provided for them, helped pay for their college so that they could have a future. But there's one problem with it: They can't use that future."
Law enforcement agencies and privacy rights groups say that child ID theft is hard to report. Credit agencies require kids to submit a police report before they'll wipe their records. "It can be an emotional situation," says Jordana Beebe, spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "You have a family member who doesn't want to rat out another family member, and subsequently they're left holding the bag for these credit card debts. And credit card companies can be very vicious about that. ... If you say 'I want to talk it over with my family member,' you are in essence accepting responsibility for that account." When the case does go to court, Jackson says, "you get into issues with the competency of a child to testify as a witness." That's not to mention the many custody and financial dependency questions raised when the victim is still under age eighteen.
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