This guide covers the following topics:
Case 1: “My adult daughter used my information without my knowledge to open several credit cards and buy a car. She hasn’t paid on any of these accounts and now the bank and credit card companies want me to pay. What do I do? I don’t want to see her go to jail.”
Case 2: “My father has a gambling problem. He opened several checking accounts in both my name and my brother’s name. Then he wrote bad checks for his debt. He’s 68 years old and my family thinks we should just pay off the debt. I know that if we do, he’ll just do it again. What do you advise?”
Case 3: “My ex-husband is using my 8-year old son’s SSN to open credit cards. He even got a driver’s license using his information. How do I stop him?”
Case 4: “My friend apparently went through my papers one day and found my SSN. She has several credit cards that she applied for in both of our names. I found out when I applied for a card and it was denied. She says she will pay off the cards but can only afford $20 a month. The credit card companies want all of it now. I can’t afford to pay these off. It is more than $10,000. What do I do? She won’t sign a letter saying these are really her cards because she is afraid they will arrest her.”
Identity theft is a complex crime at best. When the imposter is someone known to you, the impact of the crime magnifies dramatically:
You essentially have three choices of action:
This guide will address some of these choices and possible solutions.
Let’s look at this situation from various points of view.
The law: If you do not report this case, there will be no police report, and no investigation. If you want the protection of the law as a victim of identity theft (and all the benefits you gain as a recognized identity theft victim), you must make a report. To get the protection of federal and conspirator unless you knew about the fraud and did nothing to stop it, or participated in the fraud yourself. If you refuse to make a report, you may risk appearing suspect when you try to clear the fraud activity (civil or criminal).
Credit card companies and financial institutions: The credit card companies and financial institutions want their money back. That is a reasonable expectation. It is your task to convince them that another person has taken over your accounts and/or opened new accounts in your name – all without your permission or knowledge. You will have to prove that you have not benefited financially from these accounts. Unfortunately, without a police report, your job will be much tougher. Credit card companies do not take victims seriously without a police report.
The victim: When you personally know the individual who has used your information, the emotional impact of identity theft dramatically increases -- the sense of violation and betrayal, embarrassment for yourself and the imposter, the abuse of trust, even your feeling of how you evaluate others.
You may feel that this decision is not cut and dry. That feeling is one that many family identity theft victims experience as they begin to explore their options. This decision has many ramifications, for you and for those who know both you and the imposter. And those who know both of you may put pressure on you to assume the responsibility for the crime to protect the criminal.
One victim put it this way:
“The person who stole my identity was a friend. When I first found out, I was angry at what she did to me, apparently without concern for my feelings or financial security. I reported the situation to the police and then spent the next few weeks worrying about her safety. Would she be arrested? Would she be angry with me? She did get arrested and pled guilty.
The day they took her from the courtroom in shackles was a very difficult day for me. I had a lot of mixed feelings. I knew she would not be able to hurt me for a while, that she would pay for her crime. People told me I should be celebrating. But how do you celebrate when you get to walk in the sunlight and the person you thought was a friend is behind bars, on a cot, alone and unable to feel the breeze on her face?
It took me a while to stop identifying with her. I also had to make peace with myself. I was not the cause of the crime. I was simply a way for her to get money. By going to the police, I had actually given her a gift – a chance to change her ways and get her life together. I finally realized this crime was not about me. It was about her and her problems. I was just an innocent bystander. She was not capable of understanding friendship.”
What if I file a police report? Won’t everyone hate me?
The person who used your information showed a lack of concern for your safety and financial good health. The old saying, “I didn’t think it would really hurt you; the credit card companies just write off the loss,” cannot be allowed as an excuse. The cost of loss is passed on to all of us in higher prices and taxes. If you have approached that person and told them you have a problem they caused AND they don’t respond with an offer to make it completely right immediately, they’ve told you their answer. They don’t care about you and how this affects your life. Why would you continue to protect someone who is putting you at risk?
By contacting the authorities and cooperating fully, you have not caused this person to be arrested. They caused this by their own actions. In your heart, you must understand you did the right thing, sometimes the most difficult action you will ever take. Be careful if you think this person may become violent. Do not confront him/her. Let the police handle the situation and make sure you take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
My family wants me to forgive the imposter and they will help me pay off the bills slowly together. What are the consequences of this?
If the imposter and credit issuer will cooperate, have the account moved to the imposter’s SSN. Have the family work out an agreement in writing, signed by all parties, to put the debt in the imposter’s name to pay it off.
UNDERSTAND, if you pay the debt in your name, any negative information on your credit report will remain on your report for seven (7) years. You have assumed responsibility for the debt, and any negative credit worthiness consequences.
The imposter either will not admit guilt will admit guild but not sign any forms. I have conclusive proof of the crime. How should I proceed?
Proceed as in Question One or Three – the choice is yours. Either file a police report, or pay the bill.
The creditor won’t believe either the thief or me? Now what?
Assuming you have provided proof, have filed a police report and there is a notarized admission of guilt by the imposter, you need to speak with a higher level person that you are currently dealing with. Ask for the legal department if all else fails. See ITRC’s Fact Sheet FS 116 on dealing with collection agencies.
The perpetrator is my ex-spouse or soon to be ex-spouse. What is the best way to proceed?
If the person has opened up credit cards in your name, without your authorization, we recommend that you have your divorce attorney address this as part of the divorce proceedings or settlement. If the divorce is final, you may choose to deal with this, as in Question One above, or go back to your divorce attorney for additional court assistance. Send a copy of the divorce decree with a cover letter to the creditors and let them go after your ex-spouse. For more information you can read our ITRC Fact Sheet FS 115A - What if my spouse is stealing my identity?
Does mediation help?
Mediation is a form of civil action. This is an option if you don’t want to take criminal legal action. The mediator will attempt to create a structured solution and legally binding agreement as to the circumstances between the imposter, the creditors or collection agencies and you. However, the downside is that the collection notice or bill still remains on your credit report unless the creditor will transfer the account to the imposter’s Social Security Number (see question 3 above). If the party refuses to go to mediation, you have to decide – are you going to pay the bill, take them to small claims court and sue them for the amount owed or report them to the police?
Do I need legal assistance?
If your impostor has committed crimes in your name, you should definitely contact a criminal defense attorney and have him/her help you to clear your name from the FBI and state criminal records databases. See the ITRC Fact Sheet FS 110 - Criminal Identity Theft. If your family member committed financial fraud, and the creditors will not remove the fraud after you have written letters, you may need to hire a consumer law attorney. For referrals, contact the National Association of Consumer Advocates, your local or state bar association or other resources in The Identity Theft Survival Kit available at www.idtheft.org. It provides additional attorney-written letters on diskette dealing with this situation.
This guide includes:
Most victims agree – the burden of proving their innocence typically rests solidly on their shoulders. Many law enforcement agencies are receiving more budget money for financial crimes these days, allowing them to upgrade training and add staff, but they continue to struggle to keep up with their caseload.
In June 2004, the Cantwell/Enzi amendment of a federal bill called FACTA finally permitted ALL identity theft victims access to the credit applications and the transaction records in accounts opened fraudulently in their names. The reality is that once an account has been identified as fraudulent, the credit issuer must provide application and transaction information to you and to the designated police, as long as you send a police report with your request. That law is FCRA section 609(e).
Now that victims and their designated law enforcement agencies are being permitted access to documentation about their cases, such as photocopies of application forms, it is important to know what evidence is available and how it might help your case.
With this fact sheet, the ITRC is not encouraging any victim to take the law into his/her own hands. The primary investigator in a crime is, and needs to remain, law enforcement. Well-meaning victims can taint evidence, undo the work of weeks or months of an investigation, and undermine a case so much that the imposter, if caught, might be allowed to go free.
In our work with victims, we have found that many of us are unaware of what information is collected by credit card companies, utility companies, and merchants that can help law enforcement prove a case of identity theft. Again, we remind victims to coordinate their efforts with the investigator assigned to their case by law enforcement. Photocopies of all documents a victim is able to obtain should be turned over to his/her investigator immediately.
Financial Identity Theft Cases
Criminal Identity Theft Cases
Identity Assumption - “Cloning” - Cases (where the imposter uses your information to create a new life for himself/herself)
The above documentation can provide the following information that the victim and law enforcement can use to prove a case:
If you have any problems getting information, speak only with fraud investigators or supervisors who are the decision makers who can best help you.
The purpose of this fact sheet is to help you make an informed decision on whether you should you get a new Social Security Number (SSN) or if getting a new SSN will create more problems than you have right now.
Please note that the ITRC does not normally recommend that you change your Social Security Number. If there is no other option but to change your Social Security Number, contact the ITRC before you do so.
This guide includes:
When your identity is stolen, an immediate response is to get new credit cards, close bank accounts and completely separate yourself from your current identifying information. In some cases, those steps are warranted. For instance, if the perpetrator has already tried to take money out of your checking account, you should change your checking account number. If the criminal has applied for a duplicate driver’s license under your name, you should ask your state Department of Motor Vehicles for a new number.
Changing numbers in the above situations is fairly easy. However, since many identity theft cases involve the Social Security Number, some victims express a desire to apply for a new number. While it might seem to be a logical step, getting a new Social Security Number is fraught with consequences that are not always readily apparent.
Although SSA does not routinely assign new numbers, they will do so when a victim requests a new SSN and provides evidence that he/she has tried to resolve the problems brought on by identity theft but continues to be disadvantaged by the SSN misuse. Disadvantaged by misuse of the SSN means that the misuse has caused you financial or personal hardship within the past year.
The following information comes directly from the SSA. It is provided to give you an idea of the strict standards you must meet for consideration as a candidate for a new SSN. Meeting the standards below is no guarantee that the SSA will assign you a new SSN. Please keep in mind that even if you are eligible for a new SSN, it may not be the best choice for you.
Examples of disadvantage by misuse of the SSN:
Examples that are not disadvantage by misuse of the SSN:
If you decide to apply for a new number please read through the Social Security Administration’s Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number.
Take your completed application and documents to your local Social Security office. All documents must be either originals or copies certified by the issuing agency. They cannot accept photocopies or notarized copies of documents.
All case histories have been written by actual victims who received new SSNs. Their real names have been changed to preserve their privacy, except in Case #3 where permission was given to use their real name.
Case 1: Argument against a new SSN
With nearly $80,000 of bad debts, more than 30 delinquent accounts and a court judgment against my wife due to identity fraud, our attorney suggested we try to get new SSNs. After showing all the data we had (credit reports, false applications, affidavits from employers and friends, proof of actual address against the address where the credit report claimed it occurred) we were granted new SSNs.
To be honest this action has brought almost no benefits. In fact, it caused a lot of problems. It was easier to get a mortgage with bad credit (albeit at 10.5% interest) rather than a creditless SSN. At work the change in my SSN affected my ability to do payroll direct deposit, cancelled my telephone card, changed my medical policy and my 401K allocation.
At home it meant I could not get cheaper car insurance, even though I have no tickets or accidents. It also meant banks refused to deal with me and one opened up fraud investigations on me as they could not get a credit record for me (they also refused to return my deposit that opened the account). One of the credit bureaus cross-referenced the old and new SSNs (they refuse to say how they did this) and so all the old bad credit moved to the new numbers. In the meantime most of the bad credit has been removed from the old SSNs, mostly due to constant calling of the companies’ fraud departments.
In retrospect it would have been better not to get new SSNs. It is always possible to prove the bad credit isn’t yours and most companies were very sympathetic to the phone calls that you have to make each day/week/month. It is not that easy to prove you are a good credit risk if you have no credit -- no matter how much you call.
Case 2: Debbie was young and had not yet built up a credit history so changing the SSN worked well for her. While I was in college, someone applied for and used a fraudulent duplicate California Driver’s license under my name. By the time I found out, she had been using it for almost a year and there had been a warrant for “my” arrest for nearly 6 months. Had I been pulled over for any reason in that time, I would have been taken to jail on the spot. A DMV search proved that the “new photo” on my record was of a person of a distinctly different ethnic descent. Additionally, the investigators found that mine was not the first identity stolen by this same woman.
Under the circumstances, they issued a new driver’s license (after questioning me for a while to make sure I hadn’t allowed her to use it.) It wasn’t until about 6 months later when my roommate moved out and I tried to change the utilities into my name that I found out she had been using my SSN as well. A look at my credit reports showed that she had set up at least 3 telephone numbers in the Northern California region, to which collect calls were made from a women’s prison. The bills totaled over two thousand dollars over a two-month period. Additionally, she had attempted to get a bank loan and a number of credit cards. Fortunately for me, at the time I had no work history and no credit cards of my own, and thief was unable to get approved for any credit or loans. By the time I got everything cleared up, I was 22 years old, and as I mentioned earlier, I had no work history or credit history at the time. I feel that this was a definite advantage in being able to get rid of the old SSN, because I was not losing anything personal to me; I had not yet begun to build my credit. The whole ordeal lasted about two years, and I don’t know to this day how she got my information.
Case 3: A clerical error mixed Scott’s Social Security Number with that of an accused murderer.
Changing my SSN based on poor advice was absolutely the worst thing that I could have done. I thought it would distance myself and my family from an accused murderer that had several DUI arrests. This person became associated with my SSN because of an entry error (supposedly) that linked me to that man. It was then distributed through the police network and the credit reporting agencies.
No matter where the problem came from, I was now this man's alias and my jobs (potential and existing) were ruined. This cascaded into a bad line of credit due to my inability to obtain regular employment and eventually my marriage failed. When I discovered the problem, it was too late to repair the damage quickly enough and I was advised (quite poorly might I add) that I should change my SSN. At the time, I felt lucky and thought that my life would now turn around. I was completely wrong. My credit records now appeared to have a fraudulent SSN and the alert could only be seen by the creditors and not myself. Now I have problems making the transition between the numbers and have a great deal of trouble with my credit. Having changed my SSN now requires continual explanations and makes everyone suspicious of me. Furthermore I will never know until I retire if all of my benefits will transfer. My entire future is an unknown.....my life is in shambles. I hope and pray that I can help others in my situation so that they do not have to lose everything like I did. Especially their families. My transcripts can be looked up on MSNBC's web site under a search of Scott Lewis or Identity theft (permission given to ITRC to use victim’s name).
In most circumstances, ITRC does not recommend obtaining a new SSN. The following are some of the exceptions to this rule. Obviously, each case must be evaluated by its own merits.
Please refer to ITRC Solution SN 11 – Social Security Number Change Check List.
You must apply in person at your local Social Security Administration office. They will help you complete a statement explaining why you need a new number and the application for a new number.
The goal of the following information is to enhance your working relationship with law enforcement and credit investigators. It includes:
One of the most common complaints we receive from identity theft victims is that they feel that law enforcement doesn’t care. Many also complain that fraud investigators at banks and credit card companies don’t appear to have the victim’s best interest at heart. They may be right. But this also may be partially due to poor communication. We all adjust our communication styles depending on the environment. At work we talk one way, and at home we could cover the same topic in a variety of different ways. The same is true in crime investigations.
Our victim advisors have often listened to a victim talk about his or her case for 15 or 20 minutes -- without being told the pertinent facts or having the victim clearly identify what they need from us. (That’s one of the reasons ITRC is here, to provide the emotional outlet you might need.)
This fact sheet will help you state your case in a way that is most useful to the police and to fraud investigators at financial institutions. The tips in this sheet will help you to focus on the pertinent facts and see your case the way they do.
Fraud crimes are complicated. As one police detective said, the person who knows the facts and details of this case best is YOU. The ability to solve these crimes is usually contained in the details. When one person tells another person a story, especially a complicated story, the person hearing the details usually gets a rough sketch of the situation. This is often what happens when a police officer takes a fraud report from a victim who may not understand which points are the most important to the case and which points really can be left for another time, or are just not relevant. After all, most of us are not professional investigators. The result is that a detective may determine that the case is not workable, when in fact it may be. By writing down the details, you will also outline and organize the case in your mind so that you can easily tell the story quickly.
1. Prior to talking with an investigator, start a journal so that you can record details as they occur (refer to ITRC Fact Sheet FS 106 – Organizing your Identity Theft Case).
2. Rough Draft: Outline the story, in chronological order, exactly the way that you discovered it. Put down anything you think is important. Don’t censor your thoughts. You’ll edit it later. There are certain things that are important to include:
Some of the information on this list can only be obtained after you present a copy of the police report to the merchant or credit provider. Get together what you can for the initial report then supply the additional information as you receive it.
3. Working draft: Now write a concise narrative, removing any emotional responses (for example, “He was very rude to me on the phone”). This draft will lengthen as you uncover more information.
4. Include your identifying information:
Be ready to provide, but do not record on this document, the following three items:
Law enforcement officers carry large caseloads. They need to get the information as quickly and as accurately as possible. It is important that we spend their time wisely. After all, the point is for them to catch the bad guys.
1. Listen and Participate
2. Question and Communicate
The handling of your report and case will depend on the available resources of the agency that takes the report. If law enforcement feels that the case is unworkable, focus on clearing your name.
What might seem to you to be clear-cut evidence might not help your case due to various evidence laws. Law enforcement must clearly prove a chain of evidence that connects the crime to the imposter. For a more detailed look at “The Evidence Trail,” please read ITRC Fact Sheet FS 114.
This is the investigator’s case. They must be in charge of the investigation, or you could taint the case. However, you can ask how you might help and work with them. Remember, however, that your theft is not their only case. Please respect their time and be brief in your phone calls. Get right to the point. Identity theft cases are slow and may take months to complete.
As much as we would like them to, most identity theft cases do not end in arrest. Usually, this is not the fault of law enforcement; they are overworked and understaffed. Leads may not pan out, and evidence we thought might be perfect may not legally prove a case. We hope that by following the advice we have provided, your case will end in an arrest and conviction. Should it not, however, know you did everything humanly possible. And please note that many detectives leave unsolved cases on their desk hoping that sometime, somehow, a new piece of evidence will finally prove to be the imposter’s undoing.