STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Identity theft is one of America's fastest-growing crimes, and many of the victims are children. Child I.D. theft often goes undiscovered for years because the victims don't usually have reason to check their credit reports. But now, the State of Utah is partnering with the credit bureau TransUnion to help protect children against fraud. Andrea Smardon reports from our member station KUER, in Salt Lake City.

ANDREA SMARDON, BYLINE: Carter Andrushko is 5 years old, and he knows a few things already. He knows how to spell his name.

CARTER ANDRUSHKO: C-A-R-T-E-R.

SMARDON: He knows that Crusty, his hermit crab, has 10 legs. And he knows what he wants to do when he grows up.

CARTER ANDRUSHKO: Uh, look for dinosaur bones.

SMARDON: But according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Carter already has a job. In fact, he was working before he was born. That's what Carter's mother, Jennifer Andrushko, discovered when she applied for Medicaid in 2009. She found out that someone had been using Carter's Social Security number for years. Andrushko had a lot of questions. She wanted to know how the Social Security Administration could issue a number to her child that was already in use.

JENNIFER ANDRUSHKO: I called them several times and asked for an investigation of some kind, to see how this could happen to my child - or to anybody, for that matter. And they absolutely refused and said that that was not their responsibility, that they're not a law enforcement agency.

SMARDON: So Andrushko went to the local police department.

JENNIFER ANDRUSHKO: And they had said, well, we'll give it to the investigator. We've got about 30 cases in front of yours, so it will be a little while. And two and half years later, I haven't heard anything.

SMARDON: No one could help - until she finally got connected to the Utah Attorney General's Office. There, she was paired with prosecutor Richard Hamp, who specializes in identity theft. Hamp says Andrushko's situation is all too common.

RICHARD HAMP: The fact is - is, Social Security numbers are being sold on the street every day, by the thousands.

SMARDON: In Andrushko's case, Hamp's office was able to track down a suspect. But for every case he's able to prosecute, Hamp says there are many others he can't help. In fact, a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University looked at more than 40,000 children, and found that 10 percent of them had been victims of identity theft.

HAMP: Kids don't know they're being victims. Their parents don't know they're being victims - because they're not out there engaging in credit transactions. They're not going to know that someone's opened a credit line using their number. So child identity theft can permeate for years before it's ever discovered.

SMARDON: Until this year, there was very little parents could do to protect their children. But now, the Utah Attorney General's Office is piloting an online child identity protection service. It allows parents to register their children - free of charge - for protection through the credit rating agency TransUnion. So far, there are 4,000 children enrolled since the program was introduced in January, and Carter Andrushko is one of them. But Carter's mother says her family's ordeal isn't over.

JENNIFER ANDRUSHKO: It's very frightening to my husband and I, to know that our son's only 5 years old and that we really have no idea what negative ramifications he's going to have to face and deal with - getting a job, getting credit, getting a driver's license, getting a scholarship, getting employment - anything.

SMARDON: Of course, Carter is years away from any of that. For now, he just wants to look for dinosaur bones. But his mother is hoping that by the time he heads to college, there'll be nothing in his credit history that stands in his way.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Salt Lake City.

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