Utah Mother Struggles to Protect Her Son's Identity
By Andrea Smardon
Salt Lake City, UT – Utah's recent health data breach exposed the social security numbers of thousands of children, leaving many parents wondering what they can do to protect their children from identity theft. Authorities say it's a crime that often goes undiscovered for years, and is rarely prosecuted. This is the story of one Harrisville mother has been struggling since 2009 to regain control of her son's stolen social security number.
Five-year-old Carter Andrushko has a hermit crab named Crusty, a hamster named Fluffy, and a fish named, well, Fishy. Carter has some plans about what he'd like to do for work when he grows up. He says he wants to "look for dinosaur bones," or - as his dad says - be a paleontologist. But according to the state 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 number since 2001.
"I was totally not prepared for that, it was just absolutely shocking," she said.
Andrushko had a lot of questions. She wanted to know how social security could issue a number to her child that was already in use.
"I called them several times and asked for an investigation of some kind to see how this could happen to my child or anybody for that matter, said Andrushko, "They absolutely refused and said that that was not their responsibility. They're not a law enforcement agency."
So Andrushko went to the local police department.
"And they had said, we'll give it to the investigator. We have about 30 cases ahead of yours, and two and half years later, I haven't heard anything," she said.
Andrushko decided to go to the top. She contacted members of Utah's congressional delegation, her state Senator, and finally she was connected with prosecutor Rich Hamp in the Utah Attorney General's office, who specializes in ID theft. Hamp had good news.
"If both the perpetrator and - in Jennifer's case -the child are in Utah state databases, Workforce Services sends us a report of what has occurred there. We're very successful in almost all of the cases in being able to track down both the perpetrator and the victim," said Hamp.
In fact, just last month, a suspect was apprehended in the case, and faces a hearing later this month. But Andrushko's situation is rare - that she discovered the fraud, and that it's being prosecuted. Hamp says his office can only scratch the surface.
"There are literally thousands of kids in the state who are compromised just in the state of Utah. Then when you look at adults there are thousands more. The total number of cases is going to be huge," said Hamp.
On top of that, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of children's social security numbers that were compromised when thieves hacked into a state health department server. Hamp says the Utah Attorney General's office will not have jurisdiction to prosecute those cases because the perpetrators were outside the country.
But Hamp says there is something that families can do to protect themselves. The State Attorney General's Office is piloting an online Child Identity Protection service, which allows parents to register their child for credit protection through the credit rating agency Transunion. So far there are 4000 children enrolled since the program was introduced in January, and five-year-old Carter is one of them.
His mother Jennifer Andrushko says the service is a great step forward, but she says there is much more to be done. To that end, she's co-founded a new group called Defending our Children's Future, which supports victims' families and calls for complete protection of children's identities from social security to law enforcement.
"I think there needs to be a comprehensive protection, and notification for our children because it's such an all-encompassing crime that's being committed against them. With these hackings and breaches of databases, that just makes an already big problem even worse. Something needs to be done," said Andrushko.
The effects of last month's state data breach remain to be seen, but it has put many people on notice about the vulnerabilities of child identities, and the challenges of protecting them.