Identity theft packs an emotional toll
Fear, anger, sleep disturbances, problems concentrating. They're all common reactions for victims of violent crime. But they're also likely to strike if you've been the victim of identity theft.
With identity theft, "We often measure the toll strictly in dollars and cents," says Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). "I think we need to stop minimizing the emotional impact it has."
The emotional toll can be intense. Victims reported everything from feeling a sense of betrayal to shame and embarrassment to suicidal thoughts, an ITRC study of identity theft victims found.
Having your identity swiped "can be quite invasive to people," says Diane Turner, a Chicago-area psychotherapist and life coach. "It's not dissimilar to a rape or some other kind of assault."
In fact, a Department of Justice study found that for some identity theft victims, the emotional distress was just as severe as it was for victims of violent crimes. Much depended on how the victim's information was used, and how long it took for the situation to be resolved.
"Any time somebody experiences a significant violation of personal space, it's a potentially traumatic experience," says Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. When your identity is stolen, "something you thought was yours turns out not to be."
One victim's story
That's exactly what Kathy Allen found after her identity was stolen right after she graduated from college in 2010. She continues to deal with the repercussions. (CreditCards.com interviewed Allen and agreed to withhold her real name.) "I'll never get my identity back," the Tampa, Florida, resident says. "It's always going to be stolen. It will never be mine again."
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Allen has had money moved in and out of her accounts, credit cards taken out in her name and prescriptions filled under her name. She's had people use her identification in South Florida, North Carolina and Atlanta.
"At first it was terrifying," Allen says. "I felt super violated."
Impact akin to home break-in
Markman compares the situation to what someone might feel when they return home and discover their house has been broken into and everything ransacked. Not only is it unsettling, it creates a fear that it might happen again.
Donald Rebovich, executive director of the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection at Utica College, receives calls from dozens of identity theft victims each year who are seeking help, and has studied Secret Service reports on victims for a research project.
Often the victims "feel that it's never going to end. There's a lingering sense of anxiety," Rebovich says. "They think it's over and new accounts show up."
Melvin Lawrence (whose real name has also been withheld) has experienced that firsthand. He was robbed in Cincinnati in 2008 and his identification was stolen. When he tried to get a new photo ID from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, he was told four other people had come in, trying to use the same information to get ID. He was told he couldn't receive another ID until an investigation was completed.
"This caused me to be homeless because I could not cash a check to pay rent, I could not work, rent a hotel room or even be accepted into a homeless shelter," Lawrence recalls. "On several occasions, law enforcement officials tried arresting me for fraud because they didn't think I was actually who I said I was.
"That will forever leave a permanent scar on the inner core of my subconscious."
36 percent report emotional distress
Those intense feelings of distress are reflected in the Department of Justice study from 2013, which reported 16.6 million identity theft victims in 2012. The extent of the crime ran the gamut, from having a fraudulent charge show up on a credit card to having crooks use a victim's personal information for fraudulent purposes, such as obtaining government benefits, renting an apartment, or giving false identification to police. Overall, 36 percent of victims reported moderate to severe emotional distress.
For those whose personal information was used for fraudulent purposes, the emotional impact was on par with victims of violent crimes, as 32 percent said they felt severe emotional distress and 25 percent felt moderate distress.
If the crime was not resolved after six months, nearly half of those surveyed reported severe emotional distress and 14 percent said the situation caused significant problems with friends and family members, the DOJ found.
Respondents in the ITRC study, which was released in October 2014 and focused on those who had sought assistance from the ITRC in 2013, reported multiple horror stories. Included in the indignities they had been subjected to were:
- Being taken to court in child support cases when they don't have children.
- Having a driver's licenses suspended for DUI in states they'd never visited.
- Being taken into custody at a military base and told there was a warrant to be deported.
Victims also told the ITRC the identity theft impacted their ability to get credit or a job.
"There are a good number of victims who have had their lives turned absolutely upside down," Velasquez says.
Respondents told the ITRC they felt frustration and anger; fear for their personal financial security; and rage or anger. Some even said they had suicidal thoughts or began or relapsed into addictive behaviors.
Assad Lazarus, interim president of Equifax Personal Information Solutions, says the company regularly speaks to identity theft victims. Victims may blame themselves or wonder what they did to cause the crime.
"The worst part is never putting a name or face to the thief," he says.
If you find yourself a victim of identity theft, Lazarus urges people to not panic. Instead, you should work to make a plan to cope with the situation and surround yourself with people who are understanding and supportive.
The ITRC can help by working with victims to develop a strategy and "build a reasonable expectation about the resolution," Velasquez says.
The federal government has also recognized the need for victim support and has launched a website, identitytheft.gov, run by the Federal Trade Commission. It provides resources for identity theft victims and offers a checklist with steps to follow to aid in the recovery process.
Don't bottle up emotions
Along with dealing with the practical side of things, victims need to turn to others for emotional support. "Often people feel a certain amount of embarrassment and shame," Markman says. "The problem with embarrassment is that you don't communicate with other people and bottle it up inside."
He encourages victims to talk with others about their experiences, or to write them down. "Weave this event into your life story in a way that makes sense."
When Allen discovered her identity had been stolen, she says, "it was very traumatic for me." Support from her family has helped her to cope with the crime and its repercussions, and she keeps a close eye on her credit, never knowing what fraudulent activity might pop up next.
Lawrence still has nightmares about his experiences and is in therapy to help him deal with all that has occurred.
Along with therapy, victims might find relief through exercise or meditation, or might turn to clergy or support groups for assistance, Turner says.
She works to "encourage victims to see themselves not so much as victims, but as people who can not just survive this, but who can use it as an opportunity to learn about themselves and how resilient they are."
See related: 10 things you should know about identity theft
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