Michelle Thibodeau of Worcester, Mass., took her 16-year-old son last summer to get his learner's permit — usually one of life's happy rites of passage. But the day took a dark turn when the teen learned he already had a driver's license.
"I looked at them like they were nuts. We went and talked to a manager, who pulled up [my son's] driver's license file on the computer," Thibodeau said. "The photo on the screen was of his father."
Thibodeau says her ex-husband, James Johnson, who is currently in a state prison in Massachusetts on unrelated charges, had stolen their son's identity years earlier to get a license. And the story gets worse.
The teen received a notice from the state Department of Revenue alerting him that he was delinquent in his child support payments — money his father apparently owed for other children, Thibodeau said. Thibodeau informed the department of her son's situation.
Still, when the boy got a job as a grocery store bagger, the DOR seized part of his paycheck. Thibodeau called the agency again — but part of her son's tax return was taken as well.
Thibodeau went on a mission to clear her son's name, contacting the Social Security office, the Internal Revenue Service tax fraud hotline, the Federal Trade Commission, local police and the district attorney's office.
But bureaucratic roadblocks slowed her down. And Johnson, incarcerated since 1995, had outrun Massachusetts' six-year statute of limitations on identity theft and couldn't be charged, prosecutors told her.
"It was frustrating," Thibodeau said.
Johnson did not respond to a written request for comment from ABCNEWS.com.
Although it's rare, child identity theft is a particularly pernicious form of a proliferating crime. More than 27 million people were identity theft victims in the last five years, the FTC said last week. Almost 10 million were victims last year alone.
While adults are far more likely to be identity theft victims — only 2 percent are children — experts worry that as the crime continues to grow and perpetrators get wilier, kids will become more vulnerable. Congress, considering changes to the nation's credit system, is mulling new protections from identity theft for children.
Some experts fear child identity theft is under-reported because victimized youngsters often do not discover the crime for years — until they are young adults applying for a driver's license, college loan or a first credit card.
"We can have a ton of kids who've been victims of identify theft and don't even know it," said Linda Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.
And when the perpetrator is a family member, children and young adults may hesitate to report the crime, not wanting to get Dad or Cousin Johnny into trouble.
"They will think, 'Am I a bad child for reporting them to the police? Maybe it's easier just to pay it off, so no one hears about it but me,' " Foley said. "The complications can be very profound depending on who the perpetrator was, when the person finds out and what the circumstances are."
Unlike adults, children don't leave trails of personal information that can be lifted by hackers from databases or thieves rooting through garbage cans. Instead, children are usually victimized by adults with access to their fledgling identities: their Social Security numbers and/or birth certificates.