When Tyrome Sams turned 18 two years ago, he engaged in a modern rite of passage: he applied for a credit card. Credit wasn't hard to come by then, yet Sams was refused again and again. Eventually he requested a credit report—and that's when he found out that when he was a 12-year-old in foster care, someone had opened utility accounts in his name, amassing hundreds of dollars of debt. "Anybody could have gotten hold of my information," says Sams, a tall, thick-shouldered Californian whose youth is betrayed only by a voice that still cracks on occasion. "I'm 20 now and I'm still trying to fix the problem."
Sams's case isn't just an unfortunate fluke. Identity theft among foster kids is common, and for good reason: they're easy targets. They move often among various homes and schools, so their personal data pass through dozens of hands. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, half of the 84,000 kids in California's system may have been victimized. The problem got so bad that in 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring credit checks for kids in state care when they turn 16. But it had no enforcement mechanism, and overburdened case workers had more urgent concerns than credit. An October 2008 study from Javelin Strategy and Research found that one in 20 children overall have been the victims of identity theft, averaging $12,000 in wrongly assigned debt. "We were stunned by the results," says Bo Holland, CEO of Debix Credit Protection, which commissioned the study. Most foster kids discover the fraud only after they "age out" of the system. By then, according to another Javelin study, it typically costs more than $1,000 and 150 hours to clear up the problem. And that's if you know what you're doing. These kids don't. "The onus is on the victim to clear their name," says Tiffany Johnson, associate director of the California Youth Connection, but "when you emancipate from foster care, you have no legal representation. These people don't have the resources to fight. They're basically screwed."
Not every case of juvenile ID theft is intentionally illicit. In low-income families, a parent with bad credit might put a heating bill in a child's name, not anticipating the snowballing debt that could accumulate. With the economy in free fall, the problem is sure to get worse. "It's an issue, but you're dealing with so much other stuff," says Nancy Crawford of Hardin, Mo., who has adopted kids from foster care, one of whom had been a victim of ID theft. "Cleaning up their credit is something you can do later."
That's what Sams is now trying to do, without much success. He's enrolled at Pasadena City College and works as an intern at the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, but he still can't rent an apartment or put bills in his own name. "It's really preventing me from getting started with my adult life," he says. Last year an identity-theft standards panel suggested a simple solution: a federal database where lenders can cross-check Social Security numbers against registered birthdates. It's a good idea, but for people like Sams, who've already had their lives turned upside down, it's too little, too late.