When Your Identity Thief Is... Mom or Dad

Sometimes a family member runs up big bills in your name. Here's what to do.

ByABC News
March 23, 2014, 3:00 AM
Use these tips to help keep your passport safe.
Use these tips to help keep your passport safe.
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March 23, 2014— -- Most people assume identity thieves are super-sophisticated hackers sitting in front of banks of blinking computer screens. The more vigilant among us might be shredding every document in sight, jealously guarding sensitive information from unknown callers or online “frenemies” and installing the most sophisticated firewalls and security software on our mobile devices and computers. But sometimes you really never see it coming and the identity thief who ruined your credit and turned your life upside down is actually your mom or dad.

It’s more common (and under-reported) than you think. Local news outlets highlighted the case of an assistant professor of consumer studies at Eastern Illinois University, Axton Betz-Hamilton, who worked for 16 years to resolve her identity theft – only to learn it was her own mother behind her financial woes. In another story, Credit.com reporter Christine DiGangi wrote about a Redditor who discovered her mom had opened up half a dozen credit cards in her name and racked up charges she couldn’t pay off.

Although it’s not uncommon for young people to discover that their credit has been ruined before they’re even of the age of majority by a parent who already tanked their own, your parents aren’t the only risk factor. A close friend of mine got stuck with a $30,000 bill after her brother racked up debts in her name and her mother begged her not to go to the police.

That, of course, is the terrible choice many victims of familial identity theft face: pay off the debts that your supposedly loving family used your good name to grow, or turn those family members over to law enforcement. So many people choose to stay silent. What few statistics exist about the number of victims are widely considered unreliable because people are loath to rat out family members to the authorities even in the face of potentially devastating financial and emotional consequences.

What Can You Do?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that your best option is to turn your family member in to law enforcement, regardless of the relational consequences. If you catch someone exploiting your identity to incur debt that they can’t pay off, make no mistake -- they’ve almost certainly stolen your money.

In the absence of a police report, you will be on the hook for whatever debt they incur at whatever interest rate they incur it. No creditor in 2014 is simply going to charge it off or forget about it, and you might not even be able to discharge it in bankruptcy – which alone will make your life much more expensive (and likely a nightmare). Plus, the damage to your credit score means that pretty much everything else in your personal universe is going to get more expensive: interest rates on legitimate accounts you have; the deposits that utility companies could require you to make; and a host of things you don’t consider, like car insurance. Meanwhile, the family member from hell will get to keep whatever tangibles they acquired in your name.