(News 4 Investigates) -- Some parents in St. Louis are so desperate for cash, they are selling their children's social security numbers to the highest bidder. In some of the poorest areas of St. Louis, the tax fraud is called "carrying a child."
Esther (not her real name), an unemployed mother of 4, has sold her children's SSN several times in recent years, letting a relative claim some of her children as his own on his tax return. She says the federal government has paid him thousands of dollars in refunds. She splits the refund with him, pocketing up to $1,500 per child.
"I guess you could say I put my children up for sale," she told me. "People will ask: Hey, how many kids have you got? Can I borrow one?" At first, Esther felt guilty, but "then I felt like I was taking care of my child."
Mike (not his real name) also agreed to talk with me if I protected his identity. For the last decade, Mike has claimed someone else's children as his own on his tax filings. The scam made it possible for him to receive about $25,000 in tax refunds, and pay thousands more to the real parents of those children.
"It's a common thing," Mike tells me. "The going rate for carrying a child is $1,000."
Mike says the seller is typically a young, unemployed mother with several children. "She has no income herself. She can't carry them so she'll seek out somebody like myself that's working that doesn't have any dependent children. She'll say to me: 'Hey, you want to carry my kids.' We can split what you get back.' You know, it's a pretty good deal."
It's a good deal for Mike and the women who sell him the social security numbers of their children, but it's a lousy deal for taxpayers. Identity theft is a multi-billion dollar crime in the United States, though it's unclear how much the government is paying out in fraudulent claims filed by people like Mike.
Illinois Rep. John Shimkus says our story could serve as a wakeup call for federal investigators to establish task force teams to focus on certain areas where this type of fraud allegedly happened, like the St. Louis region.
Meantime, both Mike and Esther seem concerned that they may eventually get caught. Esther told me she probably won't do it again. The risk, she says, is just too great.