Updated on 03.15.08

Identity Theft and Family

Trent Hamm

A reader sent me this heartbreaking story that I feel I need to share with you all.

I’m writing on behalf of a friend who just graduated from college two years ago and is trying to get on her financial feet. When she was young her mother used her identity several times to get loans and open credit cards. Her mother is a homeless nomad who has not taken responsibility for any of these accounts and has ruined my friend’s credit. She doesn’t even know how many loans and credit cards were obtained in her name, if any are paid of and to what degree, etc. She tries to run her credit report but can’t because she can’t answer the basic questions about her last address or last loan because it’s all her mother’s information.

Her mother has not used her identity for financial gain, that she knows of, in about three years. My friend is trying to be responsible. She has a good job, no debt of her own (just what her mother accrued!), and is trying to live more frugally. She’s been turned down several times for a credit card and obviously, can’t get any other sort of loan. Is there any way to get her mother’s mistakes off her report? It seems like identity theft to me, but I’m not sure how to advise her. Could a lawyer help her clear her report? It doesn’t sound like her mother will be able to pay for any outstanding charges, and I don’t know if suing her would do much good. Since many of these accounts were opened when my friend was under 18, I just can’t believe that she’d be held resposible for all of it. It’s just not fair, and I feel awful for her. Thanks in advance for your help.

Wow, that’s a mess.

First of all, reading stories like these really brings to light how lucky and blessed I was to have two incredibly wonderful parents. If you have a parent out there that loves you, even if your relationship is strained, read that story above one more time and think about giving your folks a phone call. I know I did – I just called my mother and had a good chat with her.

Now, how can this problem be addressed?

The first step I would take would be to contact each credit agency directly and ask them for suggested directions. Explain to them the whole situation, and work with them to work backwards through each of the creditors that have notes on the report.

This is going to be a long process and it will involve a lot of time on the phone. Be prepared for some serious time investment spread out over a long period. Expect to have to escalate this situation regularly, as the person on the phone when you first call probably won’t be equipped to handle this situation. Expect to get some rejections – keep trying and hammering away and escalating.

Second, get some form of credit monitoring service. Once the reports are straightened out, some sort of credit monitoring service needs to be put in place in case any of this happens again.

Third, consider changing your Social Security number. This can be done and is often warranted in cases of harassment – and I’ve got to think (though I don’t know for sure) that this constitutes harassment. Since the person in question is young, they have plenty of time to build up new credit.

Fourth, get involved with political movements pushing for individual credit reform. A big part of this problem comes from the fact that it’s actually quite easy to pretend to be someone else and get easy credit. There needs to be more evidence that credit is being granted to the actual person who the request appears to be coming from, not a paper entity. Identity theft is a real problem and it’s growing.

Finally, don’t give up hope. You didn’t do anything wrong, and anyone who studies your situation will be able to figure that out. Just be patient and realize that this is a sufficiently complex and knotty problem that will take some time to resolve – it won’t all be fixed in a day.

Good luck!

Do readers have further suggestions for this person?

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  1. J. says:

    This underlines an oft-overlooked fact: a significant proportion of “identity theft” has little to do with strangers and even less to do with stolen laptops, compromised databases or online phishing attempts. The varieties that get all the attention are relatively rare & much easier to repair than the anecdote related in this post.

    Also, I’m not convinced that credit-monitoring is warranted, even in this instance. There are many more useful steps she could take.

  2. Kacie says:

    I would suggest speaking with an attorney who has experience with identity theft. The keyword is “theft”–this woman has had a crime committed against her, and she’s going to need legal help to get this mess sorted out.

    I hope that she’ll be able to get it resolved.

  3. Jason says:

    She’ll also need to be prepared to file a police report against her mother. Seriously…it’s a crime, and the credit bureaus will do nothing unless they can tie her claims to a known criminal activity.

    That’s usually where this kind of stuff breaks down, because people “don’t want the person to get in trouble” or “I can’t, they’re my [insert relative here]”. If she’s serious about getting credit, it’s a reflection and decision she’ll have to make.

  4. Peter says:

    The worst part about this is that there is little you can actually do to the person. Who wants to send their homeless parent to jail? I think the suggestion that she change her SS number would be the best bet combined with getting an attorney. Also, if nothing else, she should probably try to freeze all applications for credit if she hasn’t already done that.

  5. cv says:

    I would second Kacie’s recommendation of an attorney, but it sounds like this person isn’t really in a position to afford one. I think in that position I would try talking to a nonprofit credit counseling service. They mainly deal with people who are deep in debt, but as part of that they help people clean up their credit reports, so they might have good advice on how to approach this problem. I would think, for example, that getting on the phone wouldn’t be enough – the credit agencies will want letters mailed to them outlining the mistakes on the report, maybe copies sent to the creditors, maybe notarized, etc. The credit counseling service should be able to help draft something like that. Just check up on the agency and make sure you’re going to one that’s legitimate and not a debt-consolidation scam.

  6. clevelis says:

    Wow! That is quite a fix and I have heard of others with a similar situation. As for the attorney suggestion, I would be cautious about that b/c that might slow down the process and make it way more costly. I totally agree with the change of SSN.

    Here’s some ideas for dealing with the creditors:
    1. Better Business Bureau http://www.bbb.org. I have had a high success rate of them helping me get things done when creditors were trying to take advantage of a situation and put up a lot of red tape.
    2. Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/repair.shtm
    Wishing you all the best!

  7. Mary says:

    She needs to file a police report claiming identify theft. Then this report can be sent to the credit bureaus in order to remove accounts that aren’t hers. It’s doubtful they would send the mom to prison.

  8. Penny Squeaker says:


    Your friend needs to signup w/lifelock.com

    Lifelock will take care of clear those pending issue on her credit report, and dealing w/the credit card people for one low price.

    If not they’ll pay you 1 million dollars.

  9. Andrew says:

    That is unbelievable. I just called my Mother as well, but I ALWAYS ALWAYS do on Saturday mornings. Ever since I went to college 8 years ago. It is our little thing. I am so blessed to have parents like I do. That story is just heartbreaking but it is the worst stories like this that are the very best to learn from.

  10. cv says:

    One other thing to consider is to try and get a secured credit card, where you give the card company a chunk of money, say $500, and they issue you a card with a $500 credit limit. There’s no real risk to the issuer, so they’re willing to give them to people with terrible credit, but it goes on your credit report as an ordinary card. It might be one way to ensure your current address is on your credit report and start establishing a record of on-time payments, so that as the other stuff is cleared up and/or falls off the report over time, there’s a little bit of good credit history there to build on. I think that recent things factor more heavily in your credit score as well, so even if it takes a while to get everything cleared up your score will be gradually improving on its own.

  11. thehungrydollar.com says:

    Wow! What a rough situation. My father had a similar situation with his ex-wife. She opened credit cards and bank accounts in his name without his knowledge. He placed an alert on his credit report which requires any lender trying to open an account to contact him personally before the account is approved. He has to call every 3 months and renew this alert, but that can be fixed by simply marking the calendar. The best part is that this service is free!

  12. girlrobot says:

    I know a guy where this EXACT same thing happened to him with his mom but I’m not sure how he handled it. It’s kind of an awkward topic for him. I guess this problem is more common than people think. So sad!

  13. T.Brown says:

    Another thing to look into, once the dust has settled, may be psychological counseling.

    What her mother has done to her is both toxic and abusive. It is going to leave scars.

  14. InvestEveryMonth.com says:

    Does anyone else have experience with LifeLock? I see it recommended above and wonder how effective it is???

  15. James says:

    I had a similar problem when I looked at my credit report for the first time. I was about 18 and there was a defaulted truck loan (my dad’s, also named James) from about 8 years earlier. I just wrote a forceful letter to the credit agency saying it was impossible that this car loan was mine. It was removed relatively quickly.

    As for marks that are in a more reasonable timeframe, I don’t think the fact that it’s her mother has anything to do with this. It has to be treated just like any other errant mark. I guess one starts with the bureaus.


  16. CreoleIvy08 says:

    This same thing happened to a guy I grew up with. When he started college his mom offered to open a couple of credit card accounts in his name to help him build his credit history. That way by the time he graduated from college he would have a four year credit history under his belt. (As it turns out she was a compulsive shopper with terrible credit and was using his credit line to extend her buying power.) Instead of using the cards responsibly in a few short years his mom had racked up debt in excess of $20K and was not making payments on it. (He had no idea since the statements were being sent to her.) Eventually debt collectors tracked him down and began harrassing him on a daily basis. $20K might as well have been $2M. He was fresh out of college with no job and had no way to repay the debt. Even if he’d had the money he didn’t think he should be responsible for repaying it since his mom had used the cards on personal clothing, vacations, etc. for herself. He hadn’t used the cards but he was on the hook for the debt. He told me that he felt violated by the person he should have been able to trust most in the world–his own mother. With his credit score garbaged, debt collectors hounding him, and his mom apathetic to his situation (she had her own debts to worry about) he fell into a deep depression. Less than two months after revealing this to me he committed suicide.

    Not sure how prevalent this problem identify theft and family is but it can have tragic consequences.

  17. Emily says:

    Getting a new Social Security Number and working with the credit bureaus sound like sound advice. Also putting a lock on all credit reports immediately so that no new credit cards, loans, etc. can be issued without your knowledge and consent would prevent further damage.

    I think Trent is right that though this is big problem, it can be worked through. I know from experience that these things can take many hours on the phone, writing letters, etc. Document each phone call, who you spoke with, date, etc. and what was said/resolved. Keep good records and files and just wade in and get started. Little by each, this can be overcome.

  18. Amanda says:

    I agree with Mary. She needs to file a police report claiming identify theft.
    Also, I doubt Life Lock will work ask they probably only deal with stuff that happens after you buy the product.

  19. Kaitlin says:

    I think it depends on if this person is over the age of 18. Different laws apply for minors. If they are over the age of 18, things look pretty bleak. I speak from personal experience. My boyfriend had the same situation happen to him when he was 18. One of the creditors got a judgement against him. After college he started making good money. The creditor who had not contacted him, ever, was able to get information about his assets, his bank account, etc. They garnished his bank account one day which is when he found out about all this. Even though his father took responsibility for it, etc. My boyfriend is still the one liable. We contacted several lawyers and they all just recommended he make a deal with the creditors. The whole situation is just horrible. Basically the answer we got from everyone who we talked to was that it’s your name, social security number, etc. I would still suggest working with an attorney. I hope your friend has better luck then we have had.

  20. Sabrina says:

    She doesn’t have to use lifelock. Filing a police report may do no good because the crime seems to be at least three years old now and the statute of limitations will be up for investigating it.

    I’ve written about how to place a fraud alert, and how to lock your credit reports yourself with each agency which also allows you to pick and choose who views your credit and give special permission.
    Changing her name legally and possibly getting a new social would be my suggestion after locking her reports, which she can do for $10 – 15 with each bureau as a one time fee, rather than paying a monthly fee for a service that is using questionable methods.

    Adding monthly fees to her already strained budget is not wise, but if she can spend around $50 to lock it all up, she’ll know that she’s secure at least. I’d wager her mother would have no idea what to do about it.

    My mother did this to me and my sisters and fortunately I was able to work with the bureaus, which taught me a lot. It is a huge time investment, but credit is being tied to so many things it’s important to keep it under control and know what’s there.

    She can begin to systematically dispute things on her report with detailed letters, at which point she may find it helpful to get a lawyer.

    However, she can look at a local university for a Law School clinic, most of the best rated schools also have very good law clinics where students represent people for free as a learning experience all the while being overseen by a licensed attorney who is their professor.

    I’m not linking to my posts here because I don’t want to be spammy, but all of those posts are very easily accessible on my site. Just click my name.

  21. Sabrina says:

    Additionally, she may need to communicate with the credit bureaus at a top level in order to place a lock on her credit to ensure her identity can be verified.

    When a lock is placed on your credit, a pin is established to further secure your information, so once she is able to do that, her information will be what’s there and she’ll have control once again and know which addresses to use, etc.

    Once she gets the ball rolling and finds a capable person in each bureau to speak with, she’ll be able to make this dwindle and go away.

  22. No Debt Plan says:

    I’ve listened to Dave Ramsey tackle this problem on his radio program several times.

    Mary (comment #5) is correct — she needs to file a police report for identify theft. It is a crime. The credit bureaus and all the companies won’t care until you have proof that a crime has occurred. The police report will help provide that.

    I would actually be careful with changing the SSN. It might look like you are trying to hide from the debt. Not saying not to do it, just do it carefully.

  23. Credit says:

    There is some misinformation in earlier posts. LifeLock is a ripoff. They do things like opting out and putting a freeze on your file that you can and should do yourself for free.

    1. Opt Out

    2. Freeze Credit Report

    The credit reporting agency will provide you with a form to fax or mail to verify your identity if you don’t answer the security questions correctly.

    Changing your social security number is not easy, even with identity theft.

  24. A.M.B,A. says:

    If affording a lawyer is a problem, she should contact her nearest or largest Law School’s Legal Clinic for advice. A tragic situation. I wish the best for her.


  25. Elizabeth says:

    There are lawyers who would take her case pro bono. Check with the state bar association for help. This is really sad. A police report and freezing credit lines is a good start to work with the credit agencies.

  26. Jessica says:

    My understanding is that you must be willing to file charges against the parent who did this, which most people aren’t because they don’t want to see their parents go to jail.

    Some people have had their parents using their SSN and securing (and abusing) lines of credit in their names for 18 years…what a sad, sad mess. Some parents have good intentions too (using the credit to make life “better” for the family) which makes it even harder for a child to want to file charges against their parent.

  27. LC says:

    I read in the newspaper pulic announcements all of the time where people deny the debts of another. I am sure this is a case that requires legal advice. Also, three years may be beyond the statute of limitations. On the other hand, this person is better off with disabled credit.

  28. Just Simple says:

    If i am her, i’ll hire an attorney and sue my own mother. What important for the moment would be, to prove that my identity had been stolen, and to keep her in jail so there won’t be any trouble for some time.

  29. Meri says:

    I’m a little confused. Doesn’t the letter say the woman in question cannot access her credit report because she can’t get through the security questions it asks in order to view the report? It’s all information her mother submitted that the mother hasn’t told the daughter of? How is this person supposed to know who all the creditors are if she can’t access the report to see who all she needs to contact?

  30. This is just a disappointing situation, and unfortunately it happens more often that it should. I too was blessed with 2 great parents that tried their best to teach me sound financial practices and make sure that my credit was being built at a young age without any issues.

    I agree that it’s going to be a long process and that she may want to look into a credit monitoring solution. For about $15 a month they can get access to all three of their credit reports including email alerts and all that. Assuming that they’ll be able to get passed the personal questions, it would be a positive addition to ensure no more damage happens to their credit.

  31. Lenore says:

    This certainly underscores how pointless it is for lenders to ask the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Any fact that ANYONE else knows about you is useless when it comes to securing resources. Most of us think we can trust relatives or close friends not to rip us off, but the data says otherwise. All financial transactions ought to be sealed with a password the applicant creates. It pays to be vigilant and clever when it comes to devising passwords or answers to online security questions. I have a few passwords I use for just about everything, and none are based on known or researchable facts about me. I share them with NO ONE, just as I don’t tell even my parents or spouse my ATM PIN number, and I switch them occasionally.

  32. Christine says:

    She may want to consider applying for a credit card, which she will inevitably get denied for, it’ll then include a way for her to request a copy of her credit report for free without having to deal with the online (and somewhat difficult) questionnaire. On the bonus side, if she does get approved she can use that card to help her credit.

  33. Elena says:

    My husband had a situation when he was young and kust starting his credit history that his uncle that he was named after (so they had the same first and last name) was very insolvent financially, actually also homeless at times due to alcoholism. My husband kept getting turned down for things and finally figured out why. He ended up legally changing his middle name, he took his father’s name as his middle name rather than the one that was like his uncle’s and basically created a new untarnished name for his credit record.

  34. Gwen says:

    Aren’t there laws about how old one has to be to open a credit account? If she can prove she was a minor at the time with a birth certificate, it might help her cause with the creditors. Other than that, I agree that she needs to see if a lawyer would be able to help her with this, preferably pro bono.

  35. Reannon says:

    Thanks for your response, Trent, and to everyone for their comments! It’s great to hear from people who’ve gone through similar things and worked it out. I’m sure this will be helpful to my friend. Thanks again!

  36. Madge says:

    Tell your friend not to start paying on any of the debts, even if she gets harrassing phone calls from creditors. Credit agencies and bill collectors can get really nasty, but don’t give in. After a certain period of time a debt is ‘no longer active’ and is close to disappearing from your credit report, but if you make a payment on it that reactivates the whole thing. Also, by making a payment, the agencies can argue that your friend owes the money since she is paying on it.

    My recommendation is to talk to a non-profit credit counseling service first (find one that is actually a non-profit and has a good listing with the BBB, don’t fall for the ones that advertise on TV) and then follow their instructions before doing anything else.

  37. chhris says:

    I’m confused. How could someone under 18 get a lot of credit anyway? Don’t you need some verifiable income or something? Sure, college kids can get a line of about $500, but not alot more… I remember my son (at the age of ~12) filling out an AMEX credit card request and honestly listing his income as $52/year (I gave him a dollar a week in allowance). He did not get a card.

  38. reulte says:

    This is from the Q&A section at SSA.gov.

    “What if an identity thief is creating credit problems for you?
    If someone has misused your Social Security number or other personal information to create credit or other problems for you, Social Security cannot resolve these problems. You should contact the Federal Trade Commission for help.

    You can contact the Federal Trade Commission by:

    Internet— http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft
    Telephone— 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338)
    TTY— 1-866-653-4261
    You also should monitor your credit report periodically. Free credit reports are available online at http://www.annualcreditreport.com.

  39. Michael Jurado says:

    All of these comments are correct except those that involve lifelock. Your friend is not worried about junk mail. You want to stop that go to http://www.optoutprescreen.com/ and to stop the stupid calls at home go to http://www.donotcall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222. What your friend needs to do is have communication with an attorney. I understand that we are not opposed to using an attorney, but we are opposed to the costs. Have your friend email me at michaeljurado@htpu.org and re-mention the problem along with a contact number that I can reach her at. I will call her and giver her advice as to an option that she may want to take advantage of.

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