What to Do When You are the Victim of Identity Theft or Credit Card Fraud, Including if it is a Family Member who Steals Your Identity

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It’s one of those things that you never think will happen to you. You’re going along in life, hunky-dory, then boom! There are fraudulent charges on your credit card, or an unknown credit card shows up on your credit report, or you get a call from a collection agency demanding payment on an account that you never even knew existed. Unfortunately, credit fraud and identity theft protection are not one of those things that you think about until it is too late. And if the person who stole your identity is a family member, such as your mother, father, sibling or even your own child, you also have an additional set of special circumstances to deal with.

The problem with identity theft is that there are so many moving parts to getting it resolved that the steps you need to take can be near dizzying. If you are already dealing with the stress and frustration of having your identity stolen, especially if it is at the hands of a family member, dealing with mountains of paperwork, barriers and red tape only adds to that stress and frustration. For starters, you have several agencies with which to deal, such as the creditors, the police department, the Federal Trade Commission and, possibly, your District Attorney’s office. But few, if any, of these agencies actually speak to each other. That leaves you as the go-between with all of these agencies, as well as being your own advocate. In order to be your own best advocate, you need to be armed with all of the tools and resources that are at your disposal.

NOTE:  The following are our recommendations, based on our own collective experiences and research. They do *not* constitute legal advice, and the steps you need to take will always depend on your own unique situation.  Still, they are a pretty darned good set of guidelines:

What You Need to Do Immediately

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Immediately, place a fraud alert and a 90-day emergency alert on your credit report with all three credit bureaus:

Equifax Inc.
PO Box 740241,
Atlanta GA 30374-0241

Experian Inc.
PO Box 9701,
Allen TX 75013-0949

Trans Union LLC
PO Box 6790, Fullerton CA 92834

If this was a fraud or identity theft under a business name, you also need to alert a fourth agency that deals with business credit. *

Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. 
800-234-3867 22761
Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265

  • File a police report in the city in which you reside. If this happened at the hands of a family member, or someone else who is known to you, give them all of the information that you have. If more than one family member used the fraudulent credit card or account, it is vital that you add their names to the police report.
  • Alert the creditors involved that this is fraud and give them the police case number.
  • Do not call, text, email, Facebook, Tweet, or otherwise have any contact with the offending family member or person, especially if you are considering hiring an attorney. Let them advise you how and when, if at all, to contact this family member.
  • Start a file, whether it is on your computer or a hard file, and record *EVERYTHING*. The names of everyone with whom you speak, including dates and times, instructions you are given, important web links, articles, and anything else you hear or learn. Don’t rely on yourself to remember because you won’t, and nothing about this situation is too small to record. It’s better to have recorded too much, than to regret something that you didn’t.

* A note about business fraud: it is not uncommon for someone to open a fraudulent business account under your name, in addition to, or instead of, a personal line of credit or credit card. This is because it may take longer to show up on your personal credit report, and if you are only checking your personal credit report, it may be years before you even find out that someone has used your identity.

What You Need to Do After That

  • If you are going to press charges against your family member, you will want to contact the local police and the District Attorney’s office in the city in which the family member lives, informing them of the situation and that a police report has been filed and that you want to prosecute.
  • Consider putting a 7 year freeze on your credit report. In some states this is free to do if you have been a victim of identity theft, in other states there may be a fee of around $10 per credit bureau. In either case, if you need to temporarily unfreeze your account for legitimate purposes, such as buying a new house or car, you can do so for an additional $10. You will be given a unique pin code that you will need to tell the credit bureaus in order to unfreeze your credit reports.
  • Next, you will want to speak to the fraud department within each of the credit card departments or other organizations that extended the credit, collection agencies, and any other involved agencies and ask that they close the accounts immediately and that they mail you an affidavit or, if they don’t have their own fraud affidavit form, let them know that you need their mailing address so that you can send them an affidavit form provided for free by the Federal Trade Commission. *
  • When sending your affidavit form to a credit or collections agency, be sure to include any other documentation they might need, such as a copy of the police report. In fact, it’s always a good idea – and often necessary – to include a copy of the police report with any communication related to the fraud.  This is one of the reasons that you should file the police report first, and immediately.
  • Get a Letter of Clearance from each of the credit and collection agencies stating that your name is cleared from this debt, and keep those letters for no fewer than 10 years.
  • Keep every receipt, invoice or financial transaction record of any money spent dealing with this issue, such as notary receipts, certified mail expenses, attorney’s fees, etc. so that if you end up going to court or otherwise being owed some reimbursement from the perpetrator, you can document all of your expenses related to the crime, as these are part of your damages.

* Be sure to have any forms or affidavits that you sign notarized before sending them, and to send them certified mail with return receipt or by Federal Express.  You need to be able to prove that the communication was delivered and received.

What You Need to Know

The credit companies, police department and any other agency involved will speak only with the victim – nobody else – which leaves a huge load on the victim’s shoulders. If you have a spouse or family member from whom you would like help in managing this issue, you will need to make it official. In this instance, it will be worth your time to get a “limited power of attorney” directive that specifically spells out that your designated contact is authorized to contact and speak with credit, collection and law enforcement agencies on your behalf. You will want to specifically note that, “this includes, but is not limited to,” the actual names of the credit, collection and law enforcement agencies with whom your representative will be dealing. So for example, “this includes, but is not limited to, the Sunvalley Police Department and the Angry Collectors Collection Agency.”

From there, you should contact each of the agencies and let them know that this secondary person has power of attorney and ask them how they would like to be sent the power of attorney form so that they know they can speak to this appointed representative freely. Be prepared that, even with that power of attorney letter, the victim’s representative may still experience push back or a lack of cooperation from the agencies, so be prepared to push for it. It helps if, when you make this call, you explain that this is for their benefit as well, because this way the process won’t be held up if you should be unavailable.

Also be prepared that all of this is going to take a lot of time and that, even though you are the victim, you will experience a lot of doors closing in your face. Once you report the fraud to the credit card company, they may clam-up and give you no further information. They may tell you that it is now out of your hands and they will take it from there. But if this has happened at the hands of a family member, chances are good that this is not the end. You now have to find out if there are other cards that they have opened, or other ways that they have used your personal information to their benefit. This is where self-advocacy becomes important.

When A Family Member Steals Your Identity

If it was a family member (or even a personal friend) who was the identity thief, this presents a unique set of circumstances. Many people struggle with whether or not to report the crime to the credit and collection agencies. A few things to keep in mind:

  • If a family member did this to you once, there is a very good chance they will do it again. Further, they may take your not reporting it as carte blanch to do it again. After all, they didn’t get in trouble the first time, so what is stopping them from continuing to do it?
  • Family member’s may rationalize the situation by assuming that the credit company will absorb the debt, the victim will be off the hook, and so no one gets hurt. Of course, they don’t take into account the countless hours and resources you have to put into clearing your name, and there is no guarantee that, if you don’t come clean about who did this to you, that you won’t be on the hook for the money owed. And either way, that is still a huge risk and breach of trust on which this person took liberties.
  • If you decide to not report this person and pay the debts that they have racked up in your name, the damage will stay on your credit report for seven years and you have now taken responsibility of that debt.
  • If you do not report the crime then you may not receive protection in terms of release from debt liability, credit report implications and pursuit of future endeavors that require good credit, such as buying a new car or home.

There are ultimately a few avenues a victim can take if they had their identity stolen by a family member, including mediation to work out a payment arrangement, paying off the debts themselves, or turning in the identity thief to the authorities. Credit experts highly urge the latter route, but this is often extremely difficult to do because you care about the person. Ultimately you have to remember: YOU did nothing wrong and they did not think about the impact on YOU when they put you in this position. Regardless of the outcome you choose, they have forced you into the position where you have to choose, and the choice is extraordinarily difficult either way. And no matter what, they have left you with having to pick up the emotional pieces from their actions.

Also, if you do not report the crime, you run the risk of being viewed as being *part* of the crime – maybe you were in on it with your family member or friend.

A special thank you to the non-profit organization Identity Theft Resource Center for their invaluable information and resources that assist victims of identity theft, for free.

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