My Mom Stole My Identity: What to Do When a Parent Steals Your Identity
Axton Betz-Hamilton, an assistant professor of consumer affairs at South Dakota State University, focuses much of her research on child identity theft.
You might be thinking: Child identity theft? Is that actually a problem in America?
Oh yes and Betz-Hamilton is living proof of that.
“When it comes to this subject, I have street cred,’’ Betz-Hamilton said.
As a fifth-grader, Betz-Hamilton’s identity was stolen, something she didn’t discover until she tried to get electrical service for her first off-campus college apartment. The utility company wanted a $100 deposit because it said she had bad credit.
Startled, she ordered her credit report. It was 10 pages long. And her score was a beyond-dismal 380.
After years of investigation and sorting through records, Betz-Hamilton discovered that her identity had been stolen … by her late mother!
Her mother died in 2013 after opening up new lines of credit, utilizing her daughter’s Social Security number and information from other family members. She rolled up lots of debt and it has taken years for Betz-Hamilton to unravel the damage.
For years, she was saddled with higher interest rates for car loans and credit cards. She had to pay deposits for electric, telephone and cable services. Her insurance rates were initially sky-high.
All because of a credit history that wasn’t her doing.
“There’s a lot of attention given to identity theft nowadays — and certainly things like the Equifax data breach have been in the news — but there’s really no big discussion about child identity theft,’’ Betz-Hamilton said. “I think it’s going to become more and more prevalent in our society and ultimately I believe it will become commonplace for everyone’s credit to be frozen (at birth) for protection. We’re not there yet but I think that’s where we’re headed. There’s just too much at stake.’’
Betz-Hamilton has taken a new direction in her research. She’s studying possibilities that identity thieves such as her mother, who prey upon family members and children, are driven by psychopathic tendencies. That allows them to justify their actions without feeling empathy for the victims or being disturbed by the financial tornado they have created.
Betz-Hamilton has a growing belief in that theory because as her experiences led her to a career path that would investigate child identity theft, her mother was one of her biggest fans. Her mother even stood by her side in a photograph when she was receiving an award in her field.
“There was no deathbed confession,’’ Betz-Hamilton said. “Some things might always be a mystery because it was all discovered after my mother’s death. This happened in many layers and she assumed multiple identities. It was almost like she led a secret life.
“We think things like this happen more than any of us know — particularly in the area of parent’s stealing their children’s identities. The radar has to be up because we’re going to see it more and more.’’
Child Identity Theft Happens to Millions
Identity theft happens in America at the rate of 19 people affected per minute — and 16-million per year. Javelin Research and Strategy’s 2014 Identity Theft Report estimated that about 30% of all identity thieves are family members.
But here’s the kicker: More than 1.3-million children are victims and 50% of that total happens at age 6 or younger.
In 2012, Carnegie Mellon University conducted the first major study on identity theft and children. In a survey population of more than 40,000 children, researchers found that 10.2% of them had been victims of identity theft. Similar research in the same year found that 0.2% of adults were identity-theft victims.
For identity thieves, it can literally be like taking candy from a baby. The credit reports of children are clean, so taking on that identity is a best-case scenario for a cyber-thief.
Who’s going to notice? Children don’t check their credit reports or review monthly bills. Those are the protective tendencies of adults.
In that scenario, the crime can go undetected for a decade or two, especially if the perpetrator is mom or dad.
In the information age, the world is filled with predators. Could it be a scout leader? A teacher? A medical staffer who steals an identity before a newborn leaves the hospital?
Or a parent?
Once the credit mistakes have been discovered, how does one fight back or minimize the damage?
Better yet, how can someone take proactive steps to prevent potential identity theft from a family member?
“It’s a problem and a potentially devastating problem,’’ Betz-Hamilton said. “I have given talks before and people say, ‘Wow, she really knows what she’s talking about. This isn’t just some academic (person) up there talking theory. And it’s true. Because I have lived it and I know how much damage it can cause.’’
Are You A Victim? Check Your Free Credit Report
The best first step is to request free credit reports from the major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax through AnnualCreditReport.com. That will help you learn if a fraud has taken place with a child.
- TransUnion offers an online form to determine whether your child has been an identity-theft victim. If there is a credit file, more information will be requested.
Experian asks for parents to mail in a provided form to determine whether your child (age 13 or younger) has a credit file.
- Equifax asks parents to contact its Minor Child Department in writing. It needs copies of the child’s birth certificate and Social Security card, along with proof you are the child’s parent or legal guardian.
- The Federal Trade Commission suggests checking any child’s credit history close to their 16th birthday. If there is an error or misuse, it can be corrected before the child applies for a job, a tuition loan, a car loan or tries to rent an apartment.
If there is no information to form a credit report — the sign you are hoping for in this circumstance — you will be notified that there’s no record on file.
What would raise a suspicion of nefarious activity? According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, red flags include:
- Getting calls from collection agencies, bills or credit cards sent to your home in your child’s name.
- A child receiving pre-approved credit card applications or government notices related to taxes, benefits or traffic violations.
- Sometimes, the mere existence of a credit report in the child’s name.
You Must File a Police Report
Something to remember if you have been victimized by identity theft: This is a crime.
This action was done against you — without your permission or knowledge. You are not liable for this debt. There will inevitably be emotional fallout if your identity was stolen by a parent or family member.
OK, here’s the most important sentence. You must file a police report.
This is essential if you want the protection of the law as a victim of identity theft. If you fail to file a police report, you could be painted as an accomplice or co-conspirator if you try to clear the fraud activity without involving the authorities.
Here’s another thing to understand when dealing with credit card companies and banks. They want their money back — period.
Your mission is to convince them that another person took over your accounts or opened new accounts in your name, without your permission.
If there is no police report, credit card companies don’t take victims seriously.
After ordering copies of your credit reports from the credit bureaus, call each one and place a fraud alert When you file the police report, use the information from the credit reports as evidence.
Next, call all the companies or collection agencies listing an account that you have not personally opened or that show a pending transaction. Request a copy of the application and transaction records. Ask the company to remove the fraudulent charges.
If you have a police report listing all the fraud accounts, the credit bureaus must block the fraudulent accounts from your credit reports within 30 days. Again, this can only happen with a police report being filed.
Filing a Police Report Against a Parent for Identity Theft
Now on to the emotional part. If you are hesitant to file a police report against a family member, remember that person was not concerned for your safety or financial health. If you ask them about it and they don’t offer to make it right immediately, what does that tell you? Still concerned about hurting someone’s feelings?
Your police report didn’t cause them to be arrested. Their actions caused them to be arrested. Know that difference.
This could be a long, drawn-out process. Many companies will keep your information on the account in case the imposter doesn’t pay the bill. Some will work out a payment schedule. Others want all the money or they won’t agree.
Do not pay the debt in your name because negative information will remain on your credit report for seven years. You shouldn’t assume responsibility for the debt and negative credit consequences.
Adding a Note to Your Credit File
The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to add a statement (limited to 100 words) to your credit report.
It can tell your side of the story and alert creditors to an identity theft.
But to be effective, they must be factual and not make any statements of excuse.
If you have taken the necessary precautions — such as filing a police report and contacting the credit bureaus — you might wonder if a statement is necessary. It could help with clarity if a creditor is digging for more detail.
With the prevalence of automated underwriting, who knows if the statement will even be read by a real person? The statement could provide peace of mind. It should stay within the 100-word range and remain factual. The statement could be perceived as very positive, a proactive move to explain your credit situation.
But there is a fine line. Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all.
Credit Freezes and Fraud Alerts
A proactive measure that protects children is placing a freeze on their credit report. It means that any new creditor trying to open an account in the child’s name won’t have access to the credit report unless it is “thawed,’’ so thieves can be thwarted.
One trick, though. In order to have a freeze, you must have a credit report in the first place. Most children do not.
But things are changing. Nineteen states now require credit agencies to help parents and guardians by creating a new credit report for a minor child, with the purpose of immediately freezing it. Equifax says it now allows all states to set up a freeze.
The credit bureaus don’t like the freezes, mostly because they are an administrative headache. If you set one up, be prepared for lots of legwork, including reams of information, such as your child’s birth certificate and Social Security, along with bills that prove your residence.
Fraud alerts can also be placed on your credit report. It’s free and lasts for 90 days and can be renewed for 90 more days.
Fraud alerts makes it more difficult for an imposter to open more accounts in your name because a business must verify your identity before it issues credit.
What Else Can Be Done?
Here are some other ways to keep children safe from identity thieves:
- Keep your child’s Social Security card hidden. If school officials or doctors want the number to fill out a form, ask if it’s truly necessary.
- Be careful on the Internet. Don’t publish your child’s date of birth on social media. Also, be vigilant about preventing your children from giving out personal information on web sites and e-mail.
- Guard your privacy in public places, such as a doctor’s office. Robert P. Chappell Jr., author of “Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs To Know,’’ told the New York Times he sometimes visits offices and picks up valuable information from a loud conversation. He then introduces himself to the parent and suggests more discretion.
- Talk with older children about the importance of protecting private information. Tell them to ask you for permission before sharing with other people.
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