RALEIGH, N.C. — Diamond Daye is an 11-year-old girl who spends her summer days at basketball camp and roaming the mall with her dad.
To creditors and utility companies, though, she’s a 31-year-old woman who owes thousands in rent and cell phone and cable bills.
Diamond is one of a growing number of children whose identities have been stolen by grownups eager to get a quick pass on a credit check. Credit rating bureaus and utility companies say they are seeing more and more adults misusing children’s identities in recent years.
Identity theft in general is an underreported crime, particularly thefts involving family members. In 2005, the Federal Trade Commission said that about 400,000 children had their identities misused; a spokesman for credit rating bureau Experian said experts estimate that number crept beyond a half-million in 2008.
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“These are messes that cannot be undone easily,” said Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert from Boston who travels the country advising people how to ward off identity theft. “The grownup is in absolute control of the child’s affairs, and the child has to live with this for the rest of her life.”
The ploy is tempting: Adults with mangled credit histories can create fraudulent identities and appear to have spotless records. And, if the thief racks up charges on a new credit line, he can often dodge creditors down the road. Because children don’t routinely manage their own finances and aren’t supposed to have credit histories, this scheme can go unnoticed for years. Often, children discover it when they apply for college loans or their first apartment. The problem can haunt them well into adulthood.
“Bad guys love to get a child’s Social Security number,” said Demitra Wilson, director of public relations for Equifax, one of three national credit rating bureaus. “They create a synthetic identity and essentially have years before anyone will notice. For many, they’ve got a free pass for 18 years.”
In Massachusetts, a young man learned when he applied to college that his estranged father had run up more than $22.5 million in debt under his identity; it took years and $30,000 in legal fees to clear his name.
A divorced father in New York discovered that his ex-wife had used their children’s identities to apply for credit cards in her name; their mother was convicted of fraud and sent to prison.
In the last few years, the credit rating bureaus adopted rules to enable a parent or the courts to act on behalf of a child whose identity was abused, said Wilson, the Equifax spokeswoman. Companies now sell computer-based programs to help parents shield their child’s identity.
An identity theft support group in Texas is so alarmed by the latest wave of ID thefts that it has asked Congress to enhance the criminal penalties for those who steal the personal information of minors.
Diamond’s mother, Maurine Walter, used her daughter’s Social Security number when opening accounts and applying to apartments and utility services in Raleigh last fall, according to police and copies of documents from a cell phone company and cable vendor. Police in Virginia think she continued the scheme when she moved to Winchester early this year.
Walter, 31, faces a charge of identity theft on the belief that she used her daughter’s Social Security number to pass a credit check while renting an apartment in Winchester, Va. Landlord Herman Kline said Walter used her daughter’s Social Security number on the rental application; she then moved out, owing him several months worth of rent.
Darwin Daye, who has lived in the Raleigh area since separating from Walter in 2005, got word from another relative last fall that his daughter’s identity was being misused. Since then, he’s been on a mission to clear his daughter’s name.
Daye spends hours each week calling creditors and phone companies, asking them to research his daughter’s Social Security number. So far, he’s managed to clear up bills with Time Warner and Sprint as well as an apartment complex.