Parents do everything they can to keep their information safe from identity thieves but what they may not consider is that thieves are also after their children's information.
News 6 discovered crooks are targeting kids as young as 6 months old, stealing their Social Security numbers, racking up debt and filing false tax returns to get quick cash.
The scary thing is that this could go undetected for years and, by the time it's discovered, the damage has been done.
"For years, the IRS has battled identity thieves who use kids' IDs to file false tax returns," said Supervisory Special Agent Ryan Thompson, with the Tampa office of the Internal Revenue Service. "ID thieves add children's information to false tax returns to create additional exemptions, to claim the child tax credit or to increase the earned income tax credit."
Thompson said he's currently working on a case in which someone was stealing the identities of children in foster care and then making them avaialble for use on other people's tax returns.
"They'll put that on returns that they completely make up," Thompson said. "They put it on returns they've stolen from other individuals, of adults."
Thompson said he's also seen children's Social Security numbers being used and sold on the dark web, and a practice he said has turned into a big business for criminals.
"Big organized crime has recognized this as a way to make a lot of money," Thompson said. "So they are stealing information. They are stealing your information, my information. They're stealing our children's information and selling it on the dark web."
It doesn't take much money to buy this kind of access.
"On the dark web you can buy a child's identity for $2," said Brett Johnson, a reformed cybercriminal who now works with law enforcement agencies.
Johnson said a child's ID is like a blank slate, with no bad credit or existing debt. A thief can use a child's entire ID, or just part of the personal information to create a fictitious persona, which a thief can then use to get credit cards or loans, buy homes or cars or get a job.
If a child starts to get credit cards, mortgage refinance offers or grocery store coupons in the mail, that's a sign their identification may be compromised. Putting a credit freeze on a child's ID could stop that from happening.
"If someone is asking for your information, especially a child's information, stay away. Run," Thompson said.
Social Security benefits threatened
A mother in Pennsylvania said she discovered a thief had somehow swiped her son's Social Security number and has used it to apply for jobs in Texas.
"I have to keep proving my son is who my son is," said Sarah Woodington, who is still fighting to clear her son's name.
Woodington said her family has have never lived in Texas. She also said her son is disabled and cannot work.
But, Woodington said, for the last five years, someone has been using her son's Social Security number to get odd jobs in Austin, Texas, which threatened his Social Security benefits.
"It just kept going on, and he just kept getting job after job," Woodington said. "I have to keep going back to Social Security every three months and explain again that my son is not working."
Woodington said the thief is still out there, never staying at one job for more than a couple of months and always leaving a bogus home address.
Last time, it was a gas station.
Woodington said she still has no idea where the thief got her son's information.
Thompson said identity thieves can steal information through data breaches, from a file at a doctor's office or by calling a child's parents and pretending to be someone with the child's school.
Thompson said the IRS has doubled down on trying to catch these identity thieves but he admits many still manage to slip through.
"If a portion of those gets pushed through and accepted by the IRS, that's a lot of money that gets paid out," Thompson said.
Here's what parents can do to try to stop thieves from using their child's identity:
1. Get a credit report: See if your child's name or Social Security number has been used. Check with all three credit bureaus regularly. You get a free check with each one every year, so you can spread out the checks.
2. File tax returns early: Criminals cannot use a Social Security number that has already been claimed.
4. Talk to your kids: Make sure they are not sharing any of their personal information online or on the phone. Some hackers create apps to trick kids into entering personal information, which they can then use on the dark web.
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