Utah either has hundreds of very young workers or someone is, purposely or mistakenly, misusing hundreds of Social Security numbers assigned to children.

The Department of Workforce Services has identified thousands of problematic numbers in its agency databases, including 600 that belong to children under the age of 12.

The discrepancies were discovered two years ago almost by accident during an unrelated comparison of public assistance rolls against wage files, said Tani Downing, executive director of the Department of Workforce Services.

"We found that there were quite a few names where people's names didn't match the Social Security numbers that were being reported," she said.

Downing and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff asked lawmakers on Wednesday for help solving the problem. So far, the pair said, efforts to inform parents that their children's numbers are being used or to alert the law enforcement have been stymied by state and federal privacy laws intended to protect personal information.

It is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine, under Utah law for Workforce Services employees to reveal specific information about Social Security numbers.

The law does not make it illegal for workers to tell Utahns that their Social Security number, or their children's number, already may be in use, but it does result in a chilling effect because workers are afraid of revealing too much and getting themselves in trouble, Downing said.

"Our hands are tied and we don't know what to do," she said.

Inconsistencies are often discovered when a person comes to Workforce Services to apply for public assistance, such as food stamps or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and a check of their Social Security number reveals the person is either already receiving services or earning a wage somewhere in the state.

In cases where the discrepancy is a mistake, a transposed number, for instance, state welfare officials need the authority to force employers to correct the error, Shurtleff said.

Downing agreed that the assistance of Utah employers could go a long way in solving the problem.

"We think the employers can clean up a lot of this, but there's nothing that makes them have to do that," Downing said.

In more egregious cases, the attorney general would like lawmakers to allow Workforce Service employees to alert citizens to the problem so they can protect themselves.

"As a law enforcement official, I'd like to know who's victimizing Utah citizens and be able to bring actions against them," he said.

Members of the Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Interim Committee on Wednesday expressed support for helping solve the problem. With that support, Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, who plans to address various problems with Social Security numbers in the 2007 legislative session, said she would return to the committee with proposed legislation to address the issue.

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com