Are you living with an identity thief?
By Lisa Bertagnoli | Published: June 19, 2015
Identity theft is a crime that shows no signs of slowing down. Professional hacks do their fair share of damage -- as of June 2015, 348 security breaches have resulted in 107 million stolen records this year, according to the National Identity Theft Center, a nonprofit in San Diego that provides assistance to victims of identity theft.
When an identity thief strikes, most victims assume the perpetrator is a professional who makes a living ripping off innocent strangers. But it's also possible that the fraudster is someone you know -- maybe even a person who lives under the same roof, such as a spouse, sibling, child or roommate.
"It happens all the time," says Tracey Brown, attorney and partner in the New York office of The Cochran Firm, which represents victims of fraud.
Teens often at fault
When family members are involved with fraud, teens are often the culprits, "once they have access to their parents' personal information, including credit card information," says Brown. Fraud-minded teens raid the mail for credit card applications addressed to their parents, complete the applications as if they were the parents, and then use the cards. Brown says.
But sons and daughters are not the only people close to you who may try to steal your identity. Brown tells of one thief in Washington, D.C., who searched her roommate's belongings to find her checking account routing number. The thief then set up a credit card account in the victim's name, began using the card and withdrew money from the checking account. Once the victim realized she was being defrauded, she contacted the bank and credit card company.
When the credit card company investigated, it discovered the truth and contacted the police. The victim lost about $60,000, some of which she recouped, Brown says. The fraudster went to jail for a short time and received a harsh probation.
Detecting the fraudster in your home
It's difficult to spot the fraudster in your family room, particularly in this technological age. Still, thieves leave subtle signs. They may include:
- A wiped history on a shared computer.
- A family member who demands secrecy when using a computer.
- A lot of online shopping activity, coupled with packages arriving in the mail in droves.
Brown says one client discovered a dozen unopened Amazon.com packages under a teen's bed. Only then did the mother realize the teen was committing online card fraud.
One family's story of fraud
Axton Betz-Hamilton's identity thief left several clues. But Betz-Hamilton -- an assistant professor of consumer studies at Eastern Illinois University, in Charleston, Illinois, who studies identity theft -- was too young to spot them at the time.
She first learned that someone had stolen her identity and opened credit cards in her name in 2001, when she was in her late teens. She was trying to set up a utility account for her first apartment and found out her credit score was just 380.
Most people wouldn't leave expensive jewelry laying around. The same principle applies to your personal identifying information.
Identity Theft Resource Center
Not until her mother died in 2013 did she discover that her mother was the thief, and had also stolen her father's and paternal grandfather's identities. Using credit cards and bank accounts, Betz-Hamilton's mother stole about $500,000 after appropriating the trio's identities.
The clues came when the family was sorting through the mother's belongings after her death. They found a pile of old bank and credit card statements in the names of Betz-Hamilton, her father and her grandfather. The fraud began in 1993, when Axton Betz-Hamilton was 11. She recalls that her mother long had a penchant for secrecy regarding the mail. "She controlled the mail for a number of years," Betz-Hamilton says.
Her mother, who held a degree in finance, also handled all the family's finances, including tax preparation. "How the hell did I miss this?" Betz-Hamilton recalls thinking.
But even if Betz-Hamilton or her father suspected the mother when she was still alive, they probably would have had a hard time figuring out what to do.
Dealing with the family fraudster
Brown says many families would rather go into financial ruin than rat out a loved one, especially a minor child. Parents will also pay credit card bills even when they suspect that a child is ringing up fraudulent charges.
That can be a mistake. "If you pay the bill, you've acknowledged that the debt is yours. You will have a much harder time reporting [the debt] as fraud," says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.
In addition, if your roommate, spouse or child is committing fraud and you are aware of it, you could be civilly liable, particularly if the criminal is a minor, she adds. That means a victim of your child's fraud could decide to press civil charges and include you in the suit.
Whether to report a fraudster is "a tough call," Velasquez says. The Identity Theft Resource Center does not encourage calling the police or confronting thieves "because it can go very badly," she says. "There's nothing compelling them to tell the truth, and it could turn violent," Velasquez says.
If you are comfortable calling the authorities, do so. But understand that once the police are involved, "it's out of your hands," Velasquez says.
Her suggestion is to avoid that type of trouble by thwarting the fraudster's efforts before they even begin. She offers several tips for lowering the risk of identity theft.
For starters, establish a family computer with one password and login. That way, every time someone wants to use the computer, a parent must log in first.
Also, put the family computer in a central, visible place.
Finally, shred unwanted credit card applications, and lock up bank statements, credit card statements and tax returns. To a fraudster, all of these documents are as valuable as diamonds and gold.
"Most people wouldn't leave expensive jewelry laying around," Velasquez says. "The same principle applies to your personal identifying information."See related: 10 things you should know about identity theft, New industry tools fight credit card fraud, It's not fraud if you lend your card out
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