When Mandi broke up with her longtime partner and the father of her daughter three years ago, she had many, many stresses: How would she care for her baby daughter? How would she stay on top of bills? What kind of life and future would her family now have?
One thing that didn’t cross her mind at the time was her credit score. But today that is one of her biggest worries. She’s not alone. Thousands of Americans going through separation or divorce have to deal with credit and identity theft problems that can persist for months — or years.
“I was such an idiot not to pay attention to my credit,” says Mandy, 31, a nurse. “My boyfriend had access to all the accounts we shared, my social security number and other important information, and it was so easy for him to rip me off.” The boyfriend racked up debt on a couple of credit cards that Mandi had let go dormant, financed a new motorcycle and got a new cell phone contract — and on all of these accounts, he failed to make the monthly payments.
Mandi saw her FICO® credit score go from 740 to the low 500s in a matter of months. But she only learned about it when her 12-year-old Mazda needed to be replaced, and she couldn’t get financing to buy a new car. Mandi and her daughter need to find a new apartment in a few months — her longtime landlord sold the property — and she has no idea how she will land on her feet with such low credit.
“Not only did he break my heart, but he messed up my life and our daughter’s life,” Mandi told me. “I am so mad him, but I am also mad at myself for not paying closer attention.”
Identity theft in divorce
Divorce or breakups are one of the times in a person's life when people are most likely to fall victim to a credit crime. Sometimes, like in Mandi’s case, the ex, abuses access to accounts and personal information to open new accounts. Often, divorce or separation coincides with an unusual number of financial transactions, like opening new bank accounts and applying for mortgage, car and personal loans. This can create opportunities for thieves to nab personal information, open accounts in your name, and seriously damage your credit if and when they fail to pay those bills.
It is also common for adults — including parents — to steal the identities of children, even young children, and take out loans in their names. This can be devastating, and go undiscovered for years. Often the theft only comes to light when the children apply for student loans or their first credit card many years later.
Thankfully there are some great resources that can help you keep track of your whole family’s credit to prevent fraud. Some are free and generally require some legwork on your end (like diligently monitoring all of your accounts and credit reports for any changes) and some cost money (like credit monitoring and identity theft protection services), but all are better than doing nothing. Whether you’re spending time or money, these solutions are pretty cheap when compared with the potential cost of poor credit scores, not to mention the hours of stress and frustration of trying to clear up illegal and erroneous charges or accounts made by someone you likely cared very much about (or a total stranger!). Experian’s Family Identity Theft Protection products automatically keep an eye on the all of your accounts — for your whole family. Prices start at $9.99 per month.
Here are the services that you need to protect yourself against identity theft, and keep your family safe:
- Social security number tracing
- Social media monitoring (to make sure that your information is not used to create fake social media accounts)
- Alerts for address changes (in the event a thief steals your identity to buy an item to be shipped to his or her home, for example)
- Alerts for changes to bank, credit card and investment accounts
- Alerts for the creation of and inquiries into new credit accounts
- Daily credit score reports
- Regular dark web scans (what is the dark web? Read below!)
You might also consider programs that offer identity theft insurance, as the average identity theft victim is faced with thousands of dollars in illegal charges to their accounts. While many banks and credit card companies will work with you to resolve these illegal charges, some may not.
[Editor’s Note: Experian’s Family Identity Theft Protection IdentityWorksSM plans insure carriers up to $1 million insurance.]
Identity Theft FAQ
What is the dark web?
The “dark web” is a part of the internet only accessible by special software and frequented by identity thieves and other criminals who use it for illegal activity, including the selling of drug, sex services, and to buy and sell personal information for the use of credit fraud. If your email address or other personal information is there, criminals can more easily gain access to accounts associated with it and use that information against you.
Is it illegal for my husband or wife to use my identity to open accounts in my name?
Yes. It is illegal for anyone to steal your identity and use it for any purpose — including getting a loan, access to your tax return, or to create fake social media accounts. This crime is punishable by jail time and fines, which vary by state.
Can children really be victims of identity theft?
Sadly, yes! Your child’s social security number can be used to create fake accounts of all kinds, so when you’re filling out forms for school, camp or the doctor, and they ask for a social security number, make sure to ask if they really need it. If they do, ask what they are doing to keep the information safe. Remember, child identity theft often goes undetected for many years because kids simply don’t check their credit scores, or have reason to keep an eye on credit reports.
[Editor’s Note: Experian’s Family Identity Theft Protection products monitor the whole family for one low price automatically – so you don’t have to worry about it.]
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Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.