What to Do If a Family Member Steals Your Identity
Being a victim of identity theft is never pleasant, but identity theft at the hands of a loved one can be a life-altering experience. Knowing that someone has used your personal information for financial gain is one thing, but when that person is close to you, it’s entirely another.
What happens when you suffer at the hands of a family member who victimizes you to commit identity theft? There are no easy answers, but here are the best ways to protect yourself, along with strategies to deal with the repercussions.
Identity theft comes in many forms. Anytime someone uses your personal information for gain – usually financial – without your consent, that is identity theft. The information identity thieves seek can come from anywhere: documents, emails, or personal data stolen from commercial databases.
Regardless of where the thieves find your personal information, they typically use it for one or more of the following purposes:
Like other forms of identity theft, family identity theft is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. A family member can steal your information and use it for almost any purpose they choose. And, because family members share a close relationship with you, it’s often easier for them to obtain your personal information than a stranger. Family identity theft can take many forms, but some types are more common than others when the thief is related to you in some way:
Identity theft can significantly affect your life, even if the theft is minor. The time and effort to clear up errors on your credit reports, for example, can be a headache. If the theft results in more serious complications, you could spend years trying to get everything back to where it was before, though that’s not always possible.
No matter what form the identity theft takes, there are several negative consequences that can affect you – and the thief:
Regardless of who stole your identity, you have to deal with the consequences as soon as you discover the theft. Though no two identity theft situations are identical, and the specific steps you’ll need to take may differ depending on your circumstances, there are several steps you’ll want to consider.
Because family identity theft can significantly affect your relationships, you’ll need to weigh each of these options carefully. You’ll need to decide whether you’re comfortable with what a particular option might mean for the family member involved, as well as for yourself and your other relationships.
It’s important to note that if you are considering filing a lawsuit to try to recover the money you lost or the damages you incurred, you may have a duty to mitigate additional damages once you discover the theft. This means that you will need to act as quickly as is reasonable to ensure that you suffer no additional damages.
Consider the following steps as soon as you learn you’ve been the victim of identity theft:
Identity theft can lead to a lot more than financial, tax, or criminal consequences; it can change how you see yourself and the world you live in. People who are victims of identity theft commonly experience a range of negative emotions. Feelings of guilt and embarrassment are extremely common, especially among elderly people who believe they did something wrong or were foolish for falling victim to a scam.
Similarly, feelings of frustration and anger can overwhelm identity theft victims, especially as they try to repair the damage. Beyond that, anxiety about the world not being a safe place can lead victims to trust others less, worry more, and change their behavior so that they no longer pursue the things they once enjoyed.
For some people, these feelings can deepen into a depression, which can lead to serious health consequences. If you experience any of these effects, you should speak to your doctor or mental health professional.
Identity theft is traumatizing enough as it is. But when the thief is your spouse, brother, or child, the fallout is that much more devastating. You might be able to accept that some thief you don’t know used your identity to his or her own gain, but accepting that the person who victimized you is someone you love is a different matter altogether. What are you supposed to do when your family member steals your identity?
On an emotional level, there’s no single way to confront the betrayal of trust that occurs when a loved one steals your identity. The financial and legal aspects aside, what happens to your relationship after you discover the theft is up to you and the other family member to decide.
If it’s a minor theft or something that didn’t result in significant damage, resolving the issue may be simple. But if the theft has been ongoing or is significant, you’ll have to decide how you want to approach it. Talking to the person, writing a letter, limiting your contact, or breaking the relationship off completely are all options you may want to consider. You may also want to talk to a counselor or mental health professional, especially if you’re having problems dealing with the aftermath.
How do you correct the damage you’ve suffered at the hands of a family member who stole your identity? This question will complicate everything else you must do to clear up the mess left behind by the theft. Again, there are no universal answers, but there are options.
With family identity theft, the most common way you might handle it is by keeping it between yourselves. You are under no legal obligation to report identity theft to the police or authorities, nor are you obligated to file a lawsuit or pursue any other remedy that involves the government or the courts. If you so choose, you can do nothing at all.
Instead, you can try to resolve the situation between yourselves. Asking the family member to pay you back can be effective. Writing a basic contract that states the terms of repayment can also help. You might choose to forgive some, or all, of the owed debt, as long as the family member agrees to behave responsibly or assist you in clearing up any complications caused by the theft.
Deciding to keep the situation private is an option for those who want to repair their relationship with the other family member. It may not be the best option legally or financially, but it is something you may want to consider if having a relationship with this person is more important to you than anything else.
If you decide to pursue something other than the informal solution outlined above, you’ll first want to consider the civil remedies available to you. Civil law, as opposed to criminal law, does not involve the possibility of jail time for the thief. Rather, it involves you filing a lawsuit to force the thief to repay you for the losses or damages you’ve suffered.
Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to file a small claims lawsuit or hire a lawyer to try to recover a larger amount. If the identity theft involves financial institutions that have violated state or federal credit or consumer protection laws, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you may be able to file civil lawsuits against those organizations as well.
If you are considering filing a lawsuit to help you recover the money you lost or to help compensate you for the damages you incurred, you should contact a local consumer law attorney.
Filing a police report will initiate the criminal justice process – a process that can compensate you for your losses and punish the thief criminally.
Anytime you initiate the criminal justice process, you should know what the possible outcomes are and understand that you have little to no control over what happens. You can’t control if the police investigate, if the prosecutors decide to charge the suspect with the crime, or the kind of sentence the court decides to give – your desires are secondary to those of the state. As a witness and a victim, you can be required to testify or provide evidence that can help convict the suspect of the crime.
If a court finds the thief guilty, it will usually order restitution as part of the sentence. Restitution is money the thief must pay to compensate you for your losses. In addition to restitution, the convicted person can face probation, fines, jail, or other consequences for committing identity theft.
Identity theft is a crime that isn’t going away anytime soon, and it is one that affects millions of victims every year. But theft at the hands of a family member, spouse, or close friend is something entirely different. Managing the financial, legal, and credit fallout is one thing, but managing the damage to your most important relationships is another.
Deciding how to address the theft is something that will require you to balance several factors, many of which will affect the most important people in your life. It’s never an easy process.
Have you been the victim of family identity theft? How did you deal with it?
Mark Theoharis is a former attorney who writes about the intersection of law and daily life, covering everything from crime to credit cards. He mostly writes for legal publishers, marketing agencies, and law firms, but gets the occasional chance to publish fiction. When he is not writing, Mark restores vintage and antique typewriters, though his editors have made it quite clear that typed submissions are strictly prohibited.
What to Do If a Family Member Steals Your Identity
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