For many children across the world, including South Africa, this is becoming a reality as sophisticated criminal gangs increasingly target minors for their “clean” identities.
About 1.3 million children are believed to have their identities stolen every year and half these are younger than 6.
No-one knows how many children are affected in South Africa but lawyers and investigators believe it is a growing problem.
“We know it is happening in South Africa but often it is not reported to the authorities because it is family members who are stealing children’s IDs,” said private investigator Rick Crouch.
The reason family members or syndicates would want a child’s identity is because they are considered clean.
This means that they haven’t been tarnished by bad credit ratings.
David Loxton, a partner at the law firm Dentons SA, said the incidence of ID theft had in recent years tripled in the country.
Only once they begin using their accounts when they are older do these child victims discover that their identities had been stolen.
“ID theft has a devastating impact on people’s lives.
“It takes a long time for identity thieves to get caught especially when it involves kids,” said Loxton.
He said that the South African Fraud Prevention Association had found that men aged between 30 and 40 living in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were the most likely targets.
Late last year teenager Lawrence Phakathi couldn’t register for his Grade 12 exams after discovering he was a victim of identity theft.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, someone had come forward with supporting documents that included a copy of his mother’s ID and Phakathi’s birth certificate. The problem was eventually resolved and Phakathi was able to complete his exams.
“It would affect really wealthy kids in SA whose parents have opened bank accounts for education or with inheritance money,” said Loxton.
According to a news report by Reuters in 2015, a child’s name, birth date, email address and Social Security number in the US was worth between $30 and $40 on some black markets, more than the $20 for an adult. A fraudulent South African ID document, said cyber investigator Jacques van Heerden, costs about R450.
Getting this information, according to Crouch, is easy.
“Often the people doing the stealing are doing so in plain sight. It is often those guys going through your trash, on trash day. They are not looking for plastic bottles. They are paid by syndicates to gather documents that have been thrown out.”
He has seen them operating in his neighbourhood in Durban.
A discarded municipal bill can be used to obtain an ID document, with the help of a corrupt council official.
“You have an ID document and a physical address and you can do anything,” said Van Heerden.
But often for the crime to work, corrupt officials “on the inside” are needed to complete the theft.
There are instances, explained Crouch, where stolen IDs simply slip through the system.
Children are particularly vulnerable online. Criminals scour social media sites gleaning information from profiles.
“They might send a friend request and, once they are your friend, they will clone your profile, and send emails to your friends,” said Crouch.
The best defence against this is to buy a shredder, say the experts, and educate your children.