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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — It's hard to imagine a toddler who owns a new car or who is thousands of dollars in debt. But experts say it's happening all over the country.
It's of one of the fastest growing crimes in America---- thieves who steal children's identities. And most people don't even know they're a victim.
With one year left in high school, Nicole Garcia is excited about a career in the Navy and gaining some independence. Wanting to prepare her for the future, her father, Raymond Garcia, went to the bank to open Nicole's very first checking account. But something unexpected happened.
"He ran her number again and he said, ‘Yeah, someone is using her identity,'" he said.
Someone had stolen Nicole's identity and opened up multiple accounts and credit cards in her name.
"When I found out, I was devastated. It's like wow how could that happen to my daughter? You know, I never realized it could happen to anyone," Raymond Garcia said.
Research for All Clear ID, a fraud protection website, found that identity theft of children under the age of five has actually jumped 105 percent nationally since last year. Children are being targeted 35 times more often than adults.
- Calls from collection agencies, bills or credit cards sent to your home in your child's name.
- Pre-approved credit card offers if your child never had a bank account.
- The child's name on the "caller id" is listed for another person's house.
- A person who knows your child's SSN has had financial problem, suddenly "found" a lot of money.
- A person who knows your child's SSN with a history of fraud or drug addiction and has money to spare.
- A history of using another child's SSN fraudulently.
- Your child, or your family, is denied a governmental assistance program because income or previous benefits are already assigned to the child's SSN.
Experts say it can result in bad credit, bad background checks, defaulted loans and years of lost opportunities for the innocent victims.
Nikki Junker with the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego said, "It can be costly, but mostly it's time. It's incredibly time consuming. It can take years and years to clean it up."
She says most cases of child ID theft go unreported. She says often the victim and their family never discover who took their identity or how it happened.
Experts say parents need to look for warning signs, like unusual mail addressed to their kids.
"If you start to get credit cards applications in the mail, if you start getting auto insurance paperwork in the mail, strange phone calls," Junker said.
If you do suspect your child is a victim, "You are going to have to contact the three different credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) and prove that your child is who they say that they are," Junker said.
Nicole's father says after a lot of phone calls, emails and letters, he finally cleared his daughter's name and credit. It took at least three months just to get the process going.
Now only 17 years old, Nicole's learned to be very careful with her personal information.
"At first, I was like, wow somebody wants to be me. I took it as a joke. If my dad didn't get to it in time, when I grow up I would be stuck," she said.
If you're worried about child identity theft, check your child's credit record (find links to credit reporting agencies on this page). The sooner you detect the problem, the better chance you have of fixing it.