Seventeen-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., resident Caitlin "Caitie" Hemmerle is up to her eyeballs in debt, including owing $600,000 in mortgage loans and another $100,000 in car loans and credit cards.
How did this happen? Easy. Caitie is a victim of child identity theft, a practice that is growing for one simple reason: Nobody bothers to monitor their kids' credit and ID. In Caitie's case, the details of which can be seen in the "Today" show video below, investigators determined that her Social Security number was stolen when she was just 3 years old. The scammers went on a shopping spree undetected for years -- a buying jag that included taking out at least three mortgages, refinancing twice, buying cars and opening at least 42 credit card or charge accounts in her name.
"Children's Social Security numbers are uniquely valuable because they're essentially a clean slate for an identity thief," says Jamie May, chief investigator with AllClear ID, an identity protection company. "A thief can pair a child's Social Security number with any name, date of birth or address and create a new identity."
Caitie's dad discovered the problem when he signed her up for a free child scan with AllClear ID. The results were startling. The family filed a police report, and AllClear worked to repair Caitie's credit. All but one account has been removed from her record.
"The best advice to parents is to check for misuse of their child's information early, before they run into problems like Caitlin's," May says.
UPDATE: Caitlin's case is unusual inasmuch as it was a high dollar amount of debt charged in her name. More typically, the amount is around $50,000, said May. Caitlin's stolen identity was not discovered for many years, allowing the debt to increase. AllClear found that her Social Security number had been used by eight different people.
The Scottsdale Police Department did not return AOL's call for comment on this case. May said AllClear turned over its files to the police in August of 2010, more than a year ago.
The problem of stolen IDs is widespread, said May. She said that a complete ID can be bought from various websites for as little as $30.
Children's information can be stolen from numerous sources. Attacks range from sophisticated cyber-hacks to simple theft of computers, school records, hospital records or other physical equipment containing large amounts of child data.
And, as the "Today" video points out, when lenders check credit, they frequently don't match up the Social Security number with the name of the applicant. UPDATE: May says there is no mechanism in place for lenders to do this. All a lender can determine is whether the Social Security number is a valid one.
Here are some things you can do to protect your child from the dangers of identity theft:
• Monitor the mail. If pre-approved credit offers or other unsolicited financial offers start showing up, it's an indication that your child has an open credit file.
• Teach your children not share personal information online, including on social networking sites.
• Never use your child's name or Social Security number to open an account for yourself.
• Check your child's credit early. Complicated cases could take years to resolve and interfere with their ability to get college loans.