Expert Q&A

What to do when your ex steals your identity

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad

Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). She writes “To Her Credit,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My fianc\xe9 has an ex-girlfriend who used his name and Social Security number to open three or four new credit cards. She then maxed the cards out and left him with the debt. He didn’t even know about it until it was too late and the past due accounts had shown up on his credit report.

This has hurt our chances to get a car, or better yet, a bigger place to live. We have tried to tell the creditors this, but they won’t listen. They still say he is responsible for the debt.

What does he have to do to take care of this? — Renea

Answer for the expert

Dear Renea,
Your fianc\xe9’s ex-girlfriend is a crook. She may have thought she was doing something cute or harmless, or maybe she really thought she’d pay off the cards herself. In any case, using someone else’s name and Social Security number to get credit is identity theft. That’s a crime.

She may say he gave her permission or some such thing. Unless his signature is on the application, however, she can say what she wants. It’s not his debt.

Just telling that to the creditors isn’t going to change their minds, however. Creditors get letters every day from people who say this or that debt isn’t theirs. You have to make it official, and that means getting the law on your side. According to Erica Sandberg, president of Sandberg Financial Education Services, your fianc\xe9 should take these steps:

  1. Make sure all accounts opened by the ex-girlfriend in your fianc\xe9’s name are closed. Stop her little shopping spree before it gets any worse!
  2. Contact the Federal Trade Commission so they know his Social Security number has been compromised. The FTC keeps a database of complaints about identity theft and shares that information with other law enforcement agencies and the companies involved. The FTC also has lots of information that can help you. Call the FTC toll-free at (877) IDTHEFT ((877) 438-4338), or go to the FTC’s Identity Theft website. Sandberg has seen bad cases where people have had to get new Social Security numbers after theirs has been stolen.
  3. File a report with your local police. Your fianc\xe9 needs the report to prove he is not liable for the debt. Take a copy of the complaint you filed at the FTC and a standard letter requesting that fraudulent information be blocked from your credit reports. (Use this sample from the FTC website.) According to the FTC, if the police are reluctant to take your report, you should ask to file a “miscellaneous incident” report, or try another jurisdiction, for example, your state police or county sheriff.
  4. Contact one of the major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian or TransUnion, and tell them to place a fraud alert on his name. This will help prevent her from opening any more accounts in his name. You only need to place a fraud alert at one bureau; they are required to alert the other two.  

Sometimes people are reluctant to go to the police when they are wronged by family or friends — even by ex-friends. After all, if you think the unpaid debts are hard on your credit score, imagine what credit fraud will do to the ex-girlfriend’s background check. One mark like that will make her ineligible for many jobs and will be a source of embarrassment whenever it comes up for the rest of her life.

On the other hand, she should have thought of that. Wrong is wrong, and you and your fianc\xe9 need to get this cleared up. If he’s not willing to go to the police, he might as well resign himself to paying off the debt!

Another reason you should take the appropriate legal steps instead of letting this slide is that identity thieves are usually repeat offenders. She could open new accounts in your fiance’s name five years from now after the fraud alert has expired, and start all over again. Or, she could move on to another victim. It’s important for the sake of all of us that identity thieves be stopped.

Good luck as you and your fianc\xe9 clear this up and work on building a good credit history to go with your new life together.

See related:Debt collection sample letters, Sample letter to cease contact and harassment on debt that is not yours 

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