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.
Perpetrators might be strangers who work at a health clinic, insurance company or school, any place that requires access to a child's personal information. Illegal aliens may purchase a child's information from traffickers who target youngsters particularly because it will take years before the crime is noticed.
Sadly, though, children are often victimized by people they know well, such as family and close friends with bad credit or suspended licenses who may see a new beginning for themselves in the juvenile's pristine record.
"It's often a family member or someone who knows the child," said Jim Vaules, fraud consultant for LexisNexis Risk Management and a former FBI special agent. "Most newborns are getting Social Security numbers. The person will assume the ID of the youngster for purposes of getting a clean record."
Young adults are particularly at risk, experts say, because more people have access to their information. Amy Gergely, now a spokeswoman for Intersections Inc., a Chantilly, Va.-based company that provides consumers with credit monitoring and protection services, was herself a victim, just before her 18th birthday.
"It was after I applied for my first credit card to take to college. As far as I can tell, it was a former work colleague from my summer job who stole my employment information and got credit in my name," Gergely said.
"Minors nearing college age and beginning to establish a credit record are at far more risk of identity theft, in our opinion, than 3-year-olds, due to their new, sparkling clean credit records and lack of credit education," she said.
In congressional testimony last month, a representative of the Identity Theft Resource Center told lawmakers that to protect children the Social Security Administration should create a "minors" database by cross-listing identification numbers and birth dates.
Any credit application made using the Social Security number of a child then would be flagged for investigation. Software, similar in nature to such a government list, is being developed to help lenders weed out fraud, Gergely said.
"As these problems get more widespread and consumers speak out for improvements, these types of technology will be invested in by lenders," Gergely said.
The Identity Theft Resource Center also advocates for stiffer and universal penalties for the crime, which currently carries punishments that vary by state.
Credit education can also help consumers protect themselves, and their children, from identity theft, experts say.
Surveys show that young adults, at least, have little understanding of the credit process. More than 60 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 24, say their knowledge of credit reports is fair or poor, according to a July report by the Consumer Federation of America.
While many kids find out they were victimized when they reach their late teens, parents of younger children can also look for, and help prevent, early problems.
Children should not receive credit card applications or telemarketing calls, for example, because such solicitors' lists usually come from "soft pulls" of existing credit records. Also, parents should be wary of anyone close to the child who suddenly comes into a cash windfall.
Checking to see if the child has a credit record with one of the major credit bureaus is another strategy. The only time a child would have a credit report is if someone has used his identity and opened credit using a different date of birth.
But parents should resort to this option only if they suspect the worst, Gergely said. "Suggesting all parents do this, we fear, would be counterproductive and frustrating for many of them, as well as a waste of money," she said.
If a child has been victimized, families have several resources for help, including the Federal Trade Commission, banks, credit reporting agencies and victim assistance organizations like the Identity Theft Resource Center.
In the most extreme cases of abuse, children may need to have their Social Security numbers changed. But experts say that should be avoided if possible. It's like entering the government's witness protection program — any record of one's former identity is erased.
Teens with a brand new Social Security number may run into problems when it comes to getting college loans, for example.
That's what Thibodeau's son is now facing.
About a year into his fiasco, the office of Thibodeau's congressman, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., helped her apply for a new Social Security number for her son. The application review would take weeks, and the number might not ever get changed, Thibodeau was told.
But when a local newspaper columnist featured Thibodeau's case in a story last June, mother and son started seeing results.
"The article put a fire under people's butts," Thibodeau said. "The tax money that was intercepted was returned, and his Social Security number was changed a week after the article ran."
A high school junior, the teen is now applying for college and financial aid, but has been told he needs a letter from the Social Security Administration to explain why his old ID has been deleted.
Now, Thibodeau said her son is ready to move on after a year of pain and hassles.
"It's been very emotionally difficult," she said. "My son wants absolutely nothing to do with his father."