KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The latest form of identity theft doesn't depend on stealing your Social Security number. Now thieves are targeting your kid's number long before the little one even has a bank account.
Hundreds of online businesses are using computers to find dormant Social Security numbers -- usually those assigned to children who don't use them -- then selling those numbers under another name to help people establish phony credit and run up huge debts they will never pay off.
Authorities say the scheme could pose a new threat to the nation's credit system.
Because the numbers exist in a legal gray area, federal investigators have not figured out a way to prosecute the people involved.
"If people are obtaining enough credit by fraud, we're back to another financial collapse," said Linda Marshall, an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City. "We tend to talk about it as the next wave."
The sellers get around the law by not referring to Social Security numbers. Instead, just as someone might pay for an escort service instead of a prostitute, they refer to CPNs -- for credit profile, credit protection or credit privacy numbers.
Julia Jensen, an FBI agent in Kansas City, discovered the scheme while investigating a mortgage-fraud case. She has given presentations to lenders across the Kansas City area to show them how easy it is to create a false credit score using these numbers.
"The back door is wide open," she said. "We're trying to get lenders to understand the risks."
It's not clear how widespread the fraud is, mostly because the scheme is difficult to detect and practiced by fly-by-night businesses.
But the deception is emerging as millions of Americans watch their credit scores sink to new lows.