Danielle, 28, thought her credit was pretty good when she went to buy a new car a couple of years ago. And it would have been, had her credit report not been littered with unpaid accounts opened by her mother in Danielle's name.
Now Danielle, a graduate student who also works full time, is struggling to pay off more than $20,000 in credit card debt her mother incurred. The older woman, who survived a bout with cancer, insists she would have been able to pay the bills had she not become ill and gets angry when Danielle mentions the debt.
"I feel bad bringing it up," Danielle said. "I feel like the bad guy."
Parents are supposed to protect their children from harm, but some inflict long-lasting financial and emotional damage by using them to commit identity theft.
Some, such as Danielle's mother, victimize offspring who are old enough to establish credit in their own right. Others use the Social Security numbers of their minor children to set up fraudulent accounts that the victims might not discover for years.
"When we first started hearing about it, we were shocked and horrified," said Beth Givens, the head of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "It turns out it is more common than you might think."
Linda Foley, the founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center, also in San Diego, said she almost never heard about parent perpetrators when she and her husband established the center a decade ago. These days, though, they get several complaints a week from victims or from other adults who have uncovered the crimes.
"It just keeps getting bigger," said Foley, who fears the recession and rising unemployment will tempt more parents to cross the line.