Mom steals ID, racks up debt, ruins daughter's credit

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Dear Opening Credits,
I'm in kind of this weird position. I knew that my mom used my name to open billing accounts -- our apartment and what I had thought was one credit card. This was when I was 17-18. I only agreed because she told me that she was going to help me build my credit so that when I started college I would be able to apply for loans if needed. I know everyone says go to the police, but at the time I didn't know it was identity theft.

Now it's a few years later and I'm just about $15,000 in debt. It had recently gone up because she had gotten into an accident in my car last winter after she had told me she was taking over the car payments. So my question, sorry for the rambling, would be is it too late to do anything other than file bankruptcy? Because I've heard filing for it costs a few hundred dollars, which I don't have and I don't think I could get a loan either at the moment. -- Erin

Answer Dear Erin,
At the age of 17 you were a minor. As such, even if you did consent to your mother using your name to open any type of account, you would not be held liable for the financial obligation that incurred but was left unpaid. After turning 18, despite knowing what was going on, the liability still falls on the shoulders of the perpetrator: good old mom. That's because it is never legal for a person to appropriate someone else's identity.

The debt that your mother ran up in your name is fraudulent. It was not your responsibility to pay then and it isn't now. It's true that the sooner one deals with identity theft issues the better, as it's possible to avoid having it listed on a credit report in the first place, but it's not too late to deal with this.

I reached out to Nikki Fiorentino, director of communications at the Identity Theft Resource Center, and she assures me that you can escape the problem that's been haunting you all these years. However, you're going to have to contact the authorities. Call your local police department and file a criminal report. Do that and you can dispute the matter with all the companies in which your mom used your identity that are looking to you for payment.

The only problem you may encounter is pushback from the businesses from which you received some of the services. "Say it's a utility account, and when you attempt to prove that it's in your name due to theft, they may say it doesn't matter because you benefited," says Fiorentino. "That's why it's important to have the police report." Presenting it will be proof that a crime has occurred and the creditors will be forced to back off. 

As for the credit card company, Fiorentino assures me they will be even more amenable to removing you from responsibility. The age of the accounts is not a factor.

So that leads you to the question: Do you want to point the legal finger at your parent? It's a tough one, but I hope you say yes. My reasons:

  • Mom should take the heat for what she did to you and begin to make amends. If you're concerned about her serving jail time, though, you needn't be. Unless she's a major player in the identity theft world, she'll probably just get a slap on the wrist.
  • You should stand up for yourself and not take this kind of abuse.
  • It will repair your damaged credit rating, and you won't have to pursue bankruptcy protection. Besides, as Fiorentino says, filing would be an admission of guilt. And that's just wrong.

Assuming I've convinced you to work with the police, reach out to every company that you're fraudulently associated with and explain what happened. Provide each the police report number. This should prompt a discussion about them not reporting the false accounts to your credit reports. Back up all conversations with letters summarizing agreements, include a copy of the police report, then make copies of everything. Send the package certified mail, return receipt requested.

After a couple of months, pull your credit reports from to ensure they only reflect accurate information. If they don't, follow the dispute process on one of the credit bureau'ss websites (the others will be notified). The top three credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. A 30-day investigation will take place, and it should result in a positive decision for you.

To offset future identity theft, you may want to consider freezing your credit. No company will be able to access your file, thus preventing them from granting a new account, without your permission. You can thaw it when you -- the real you -- need to get a loan or line of credit.

See related: Why you should file a police report for card fraud, Mom opened checking, credit accounts in my name, left a mess

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Updated: 01-20-2018