📌 Editor's Note: This article is a guest contribution by Axton Betz-Hamilton.
For many, it’s unconscionable that someone would steal a family member’s identity. I’m frequently asked, “What kind of a person would do such a thing?” but there isn’t an easy answer to this question.
How I Became a Victim of Familial Identity Theft
My mother stole my identity in 1993 when I was in elementary school, and it was not discovered until I tried to get electric service at my first apartment. At this point, I was unaware that my mother was the offender. I had been told that her identity had been stolen, along with my dad’s, and that a relative or family friend was likely behind it.
When I obtained my credit report, I learned a variety of credit cards had been established in my name, starting when their identities had been stolen. The truth was my mother’s identity hadn’t been stolen; she had ruined her credit and then moved on to my mine. I wouldn’t discover this until later.
What is Familial Identity Theft?
Familial identity theft is the technical term for when someone uses the personal identifying information of a family member (without their knowledge or consent) to obtain something of value, like money or credit.*
- This type of identity theft is not uncommon; an estimated 30% of all identity theft incidents are familial.
- Parents, spouses, and adult children are common offenders.
- Financial instability may motivate a parent to steal their child’s identity (or open a credit card in their name).
- The same can be true for adult children who steal the identity of their elderly parent.
- Legal separation may be a catalyst for a spouse to engage in spousal identity theft.
How Did My Case Go On for So Long?
It took 20 years from when the identity theft began in 1993 until it was discovered that my mother was the offender. It was exposed by chance 13 days after she passed away in 2013. My dad found a statement in my name for a credit card over the limit, with a due date of January 1, 2001.
This document led to the discovery of additional documents stashed in an outbuilding on their property, which demonstrated she was the thief all along, stealing my father’s identity, my identity, and my grandfather’s identity.
Many have asked me, “How did you not see it was your mother behind all of this?”
The short answer is, “She was a masterful manipulator.”
One way she manipulated us was by saying the person responsible for the identity theft was someone close to us, and that’s why they could pull off the identity theft so well.
As a measure of self-protection, we withdrew from relationships with extended family members and friends.
In reality, this wasn’t self-protection; it was isolation. The isolation/self-protection was amplified when our landline was shut off, which my mom said was due to the thief’s actions.
My mother had a B.S. in finance and worked in the financial services industry for most of her career. As a result, she was the financial expert in the family, with authority over the family taxes, investments, and insurance planning.
Her knowledge and professional experience earned her a position of trust in financial matters among the immediate family, even though she refused to share documents with us. Each time we asked to see a financial document, she would say, “You don’t trust me!”
Because of my mother’s actions, relationships that should have been there with extended family and friends were nonexistent for 20 years. Many of those relationships have been rebuilt over the past nine years, but my dad won’t have the financial security he expected in retirement.
Our Understanding of Familial Identity Theft is Limited
In the 1990s, most people had not yet heard of identity theft, let alone familial identity theft. Unfortunately, our understanding of familial identity theft hasn’t evolved much since then, for various reasons.
First, victims often don’t report the crime to law enforcement because they don’t think it will do any good.
Second, victims are frequently unwilling to participate in research studies due to concerns about starting or exacerbating family conflict and/or fear of retaliation by the offending family member.
These concerns are valid, as familial identity theft can co-occur with other forms of abuse. Victims are often financially dependent and/or dependent on caregiving from the offender, especially if the victim is a child or an older adult. On another note, offenders rarely self-identify, making it extremely difficult to gather comprehensive data.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As someone with an academic background and personal experience with familial identity theft, I believe normalizing the conversation will help victims feel less alone and give us more insight into victims’ experiences and offender motivations.
By implementing a greater research-based understanding of familial identity theft, we’ll be better equipped to identify useful strategies to protect victims.
Until that research-based understanding is achieved, you can take steps to minimize your risk of familial identity theft victimization. Access and review your financial statements, such as your credit report, investment account statements, retirement account statements, and tax returns.
If you’re in a committed relationship and your significant other won’t share joint financial documents with you, be concerned. If you’re encouraged to stop engaging with other family members or friends, this could be an attempt by your family member to control what you share with them and what they share with you. Ask for help from a trusted source if you are concerned about being isolated from others.
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- Betz-Hamilton, Axton. “A Phenomenological Study on Parental Perpetrators of Child Identity Theft.” Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning 31, no. 2 (2020): 219–28 https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgrjfcp/early/2020/04/01/jfcp-19-00001
- LaDue, James. “What to Do When a Family Member Steals Your Credit.” Yahoo! Finance., March 1, 2016. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/family-member-steals-credit-103006808.html
- Betz-Hamilton, Axton. “Understanding the Experiences of Familiar Identity Theft Victims When a Parent Is the Perpetrator: A Pilot Study.” Journal of Financial Therapy 11, no. 1 (2020). https://newprairiepress.org/jft/vol11/iss1/6/
- Chappell, Robert P.” Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know.” Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.
- Identity Theft Resource Center. “When You Personally Know the Identity Thief What Are Your Options When You Know the Imposter?” Identity Theft Resource Center, October 8, 2020. https://helpcenter.idtheftcenter.org/s/article/WHEN-YOU-PERSONALLY-KNOW-THE-IDENTITY-THIEF-WHAT-ARE-YOUR-OPTIONS-WHEN-YOU-KNOW-THE-IMPOSTER
- Betz-Hamilton, Axton. “The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity.” New York, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
- Betz-Hamilton, A. (2018). “Challenges and strategies associated with recruiting participants for family financial exploitation research.” Consumer Interests Annual, 64. https://www.consumerinterests.org/assets/docs/CIA/CIA2018/Betz-HamiltonCIA2018.pdf