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The Identity Theft You Haven't Heard of...Yet

Target: Your Insurance Card continued...

Experts say that this forecast is far too sunny. If someone is using your SSN, the system is supposed to register at least one other shared piece of data — a name, address, or birth date — before the thief's information shows up on your credit report. "The problem is that credit-bureau merging software makes mistakes, and even if you share just the SSN with another person, that could be enough to trash your credit," explains Edward Jamison, a California attorney who specializes in credit matters. "It's not a perfect system."

The Weeds expect a lifelong battle with Grace's number. But there has been progress. Lynette Weed said that two men who have used Grace's number are currently being investigated; if prosecuted, they could face a fine and possible prison time. "If there are court hearings, I plan to attend with Grace," she says. "I want to show these men that there was a real person attached to that number, a little girl who's going to have to clean up their mess later on."

Target: Your Social Security Number

For as little as $20, you can purchase a fake Social Security card. At ID mills around the country, buyers receive a reasonably authentic-looking card with their name and a nine-digit number. The seller generates the number on the card — but in most cases, by chance, that number already belongs to someone else. The person may be deceased or alive and unaware, age 4 or 84.

In Utah and Houston, where many cases of Social Security ID theft are in the courts, prosecutors say that a majority of imposters are illegal immigrants (such as Betty's father on the TV show Ugly Betty ). There are no national statistics.

"Some immigrants cross the border, go to an ID mill, and say, 'I need an SS card and this is the name I want on it,'" explains Houston Assistant District Attorney John Brewer. "They get jobs, start working, and eventually — when they realize they're not going to get caught — grow more comfortable with the number. Then they go the next step and sign up for a car loan or mortgage."

And they usually get away with the crime because there are surprisingly few checks to stop this kind of theft, say prosecutors: Employers aren't required by law to verify Social Security Numbers and some car salesmen and mortgage brokers are willing to overlook a fishy credit report in order to complete a sale.

Every year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) receives eight to nine million earnings reports where the name doesn't match the SSN. Sometimes it's a minor mix-up — there are women, for example, who get married and change their names, but never notify the SSA. In a growing number of cases, however, the problem is ID theft. And the perpetrators rarely get caught because wage reports (like medical files) are considered private. So when a mismatch occurs, instead of investigating, the SSA places the suspect documents in a "suspense file" and essentially walks away.

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