Dee Saint Franc left the Rhode Island foster care system eager to start life on her own. But when she tried sign up for cable and Internet at Verizon, she learned that breaking free from her past wouldn't be easy.
A customer service representative told Saint Franc that someone had used her identity to rack up $3,000 worth of delinquent bills dating back to 1998.
"I was like, `$3,000? I just turned 18,'" recalled Saint Franc, now 21 and going to college in Providence. "It didn't make any sense. I was 8 years old in 1998."
Saint Franc is one of a disturbingly high number of children who leave foster care only to find that someone has stolen their identity to open credit accounts, take out loans or pay bills, authorities say. Studies show that foster children face higher rates of identity theft than other children or even adults.
A provision in a new federal law requires states to run credit checks on older foster children and help resolve cases of identity theft so they can enter adulthood without the burden of someone else's debt or the stain of bad credit.
Children, and particularly foster children, make great targets for identity thieves, child welfare officials and researchers say. Too young to take out a loan or credit card, they have Social Security numbers that are a clean slate, ripe for exploitation. Children aren't likely to realize their identity has been stolen until they grow up and apply for credit.
And too often, foster children come from struggling, troubled families where a relative might see a child's Social Security number as a way to keep the lights on, put food on the table or feed an addiction.
One researcher estimates that as many as 30 percent of foster children may be the victims of identity theft, based on reviews of the credit reports of foster children.
"These children are already behind the eight ball," said U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat and co-sponsor of the new law requiring credit checks for foster children. "They're already dealing with psychological and emotional problems because of abuse and neglect. It's outrageous that they would be further victimized by identity theft and find out about it just when they're trying to establish themselves with a car loan, apartment or job."
Overall, children are more likely than adults to be targeted for identity theft, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers worked with an identity protection company to comb through records of 42,000 children and found more than 10 percent showed signs of identity theft.
About 4 percent of adults are victims of identity theft, according to federal estimates.
The discrepancy may be even worse for foster children. Officials in California reviewed credit reports of foster children in Los Angeles County and found more than 100 victims of identity theft who were 16 and 17 years old. Victims had an average of more than two accounts opened in their name, with an average of $1,800 in debts in each account.
Medical bills and telephone services were the most common type of account, followed by cable television service, credit cards and utilities.
One child was found to have a $217,000 home loan.
Robert Fellmeth, a law professor at the University of San Diego and director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, estimates that as many as 30 percent of foster children may be the victims of identity theft.
The culprit could be a close relative wanting to pay a bill, open a utility account or support an addiction, Fellmeth said, though foster parents and child welfare officials are sometimes to blame, too.
Fellmeth said states have done a poor job of protecting foster children from identity theft. Too many, he said, age out of the system only to discover their credit is ruined and they have nowhere to turn.
"When these kids turn 18 many of them fall off a cliff," he said. "The state hands out some brochures, give them a website address and it's sayonara."
States including California, Colorado and Connecticut have passed laws mandating credit checks for foster children before they leave state custody.
Langevin said he pushed for the new federal law after hearing one too many heartbreaking stories.
President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law Sept. 30. Langevin said he'd like to build on the law in the future by requiring annual credit checks for all foster children, regardless of their age.
Langevin said he worries that children in the juvenile justice system may be at an increased risk of identity theft, too.
"More broadly, we need to look after these young people in our care and make sure their credit is not abused," he said. "They're our responsibility."
The new law requires child welfare officials to help a foster child fix any problems that pop up on a credit check. Several nonprofit child advocacy groups already provide the service.
Saint Franc entered state custody at age 8. She believes a family member stole her identity and ran up the charges at Verizon. With the help of her social worker, Saint Franc persuaded Verizon to waive the debt. She never reported the crime to police or confronted the relative she suspects of using her identity.
No foster child should have to reopen old wounds like that just as they're trying to build a life, she said.
"You're 18, you don't have a job, don't have a credit card, don't have a car or an apartment," she said. "At least you should have a clean slate."