What to do if your family member commits identity theft against you

My brother took out a credit card in my name

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

“I just discovered that my brother took out a credit card in my name. I know he’s been having money troubles—for years, actually. But the statements show he purchased a mix of necessities and stuff like a video game console and fancy hiking boots. I’ve been told that the credit card company won’t hold me responsible for the bills because it’s fraud, but how do I let my brother know how hurt I am and prevent this from ever happening again?”

—Kelly N., Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The solution

This might not make you feel a whole lot better, but you should know that you aren’t alone. A report from the Department of Justice found that almost 18 million people fell prey to identity theft in 2014 alone. Most offenders simply charged up purchases on an existing credit card or bank account, but more than a million victims found themselves in your situation: A new account had been created in their name. In the wake of the massive Equifax data breach, more and more people have woken up to just how vulnerable we all are to identity theft.

Your first move—and you should do this right now—is to visit IdentityTheft.gov, where you’ll get concrete advice on how to fix the damage. I won’t sugarcoat this: You’re probably in for one wild bureaucratic ride. But it will be nothing compared to the far trickier part of this problem: talking to your family.

As I read Kelly’s problem, I couldn’t help thinking about the friend of a friend who’d gone through something similar 10 years ago. “While I was doing an internship in South America, my sister stole my identity,” said Neil. “She opened a credit card account in my name without my knowledge and racked up over $1,000 worth of charges.”

Simply finding out what had gone wrong—and pinpointing the perpetrator—was an ordeal in itself. “I got a call from a creditor when I returned to the States demanding payment on the delinquent account,” he said. “It took a lot of calls, time, and energy to figure out that my sister had opened the account, and even more time to convince the credit card company that it happened without my consent.”

As in Kelly’s case, Neil was not held responsible for charges made in his name. That doesn’t mean, though, that credit card fraud is a victimless crime. “For a long time I couldn’t get instant credit,” he said. “For example, I could not qualify for a store credit card at the counter. The result was that I had less access to easy credit when I was in my twenties.” Of course, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing: “I didn’t develop reliance on credit cards!” he added.

It’s harder for Neil to put a positive spin on the confrontation with his sibling that followed. Here, with his help, are some pointers about how to handle the painful—but necessary—conversations that come with fraud in the family.

Lower your expectations

If you’re expecting a mea culpa and a thousand “I’ll make this right”s from your brother, you’ll probably leave the conversation wanting blood. Take it from Neil: “I confronted her about it,” he said. “She blew it off, then begged for forgiveness, and then blew it off again.”

The fact is that anyone who commits a crime against a family member is probably not feeling super-great about himself. A real apology would only make the perpetrator feel worse, even if it could ease tensions in the long term. And we humans seem programmed to avoid short-term pain. What you should expect: denial, even anger, from your brother. Don’t be too surprised if he blames you for his actions. When cornered, people can get very creative.

“I’m quite certain that our talk had no impact on her,” said Neil about confronting his sister. “In fact it may have been her practice round. When she finished with me, she moved onto to preying on my parents.”

Which is why it’s key to…

Talk to the rest of your family

Differences between siblings can sow divisions among children and parents and between partners. Let the others know—in the most measured way possible—what has happened, and urge them to be cautious. Reassure your parents especially that you don’t expect them to take sides—or punish your sibling. Doing so might end up causing even more rifts in your family. Finally, if you have a partner, he or she will likely want to defend you or get “justice” on your behalf. Let him or her know that you appreciate the concern—you’d feel the same way if the tables were turned—but that it’s important for you to make peace with this situation yourself.

What do you say?

The less the better. Simply let your brother know that you know what he’s done and that you expect to be paid back for any charges you’re stuck with. More than that, though, you expect him to restore the trust that he’s broken. This is important to remember: It’s not your job to “fix” your brother.

Likewise, now is not the time to offer financial help, even if you empathize with his money problems. Committing fraud against you might have been his (not so bright) version of a cry for help. Answering that cry will only send a signal that it worked—and you can expect to be taken advantage of again.

Protect yourself

“If there is a silver lining in all of this,” Neil said, “it’s that the situation forced me to put safeguards in place that make it very difficult for someone to steal my identity again.”

Unfortunately, most of us find out our identity has been stolen—and get serious about protecting ourselves—only when it’s too late. You can, however, take steps to avoid the most common traps—and to catch fraudsters before they do too much damage. Here are six protective measures to take—smart moves whether the threat is in the living room or around the globe.

  • Check your credit card and bank accounts frequently. This means once or twice a week. You can even turn on push notifications on your phone so your bank or card issuer will alert you to big purchases.
  • Don’t talk to strangers. Never give your address, birth date, phone number, email, PINs, online passwords, Social Security number, or bank account and credit card numbers to anyone you don’t know. Phishing scammers pretend to be trusted entities like the IRS or Google. Don’t automatically click when you see a familiar logo.
  • Get a cheap shredder. And use it. (They’re fun.)
  • Check your credit reports. You can get one free report from all three credit bureaus each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • Change your passwords once a year. And pick something that isn’t obvious—obviously.
  • Optional: Consider a credit freeze. This has become more common since the Equifax data breach. When you put a freeze on your credit, only companies you’ve interacted with in the past can gain access to it. You’ll have to visit all three credit bureaus to do it: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.

Read more from the Ask Beth series.

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