Divorce or a breakup with a live-in partner can be one of the most vulnerable times in life — including when it comes to your credit score and online identity.
In this post you will learn:
- How to protect your credit
- Why it is so important to monitor your credit during a breakup or divorce
- What to do if you or your children are are the victim of identity theft
- How to rebuild your credit
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, and did 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.”
Unfortunately, it is often too late to learn that significant funds are missing from your shared account, or what you thought was your car, isn’t actually in your name — all during a time when your credit score and personal finances are more important than ever.
Further, the fact that you are more likely to make financial transactions during this transition — opening a new savings account and a checking account, buying and selling a car or home, or seeking out student and personal loans — means strangers have higher-than-usual access to your personal data.
Here are six steps you can take today to protect your credit and identity in the face of a divorce or breakup:
Know your credit score and numbers
If you don’t already know it, get clear about your credit score and report. Pull your credit history right away.
Understand which accounts are in your name, which are in your partner’s, and how much is owed. You may discover accounts you did not know about.
You may also get a wake-up call about how involved you actually were (or were not) in the family finances.
If your credit score is low, consider a credit-builder loan with Self Lender. Self Lender is a low-fee alternative to credit repair companies and secured credit cards, in that you don't have to put up any deposit. Instead, you set up a loan to repay yourself. This helps you build and repair credit, while also building a savings account.
Commit to making credit management a priority. Consider investing in an online identity monitoring service.
Open new accounts in your name
If you don’t already have a checking account and credit card that are in your name, and your name only, go to your local bank branch and do that today.
Deposit paychecks into these accounts, and start charging on the new card — as well as paying it monthly before the due date (set up auto payments to make this easy).
This establishes credit if you have none, or can quickly improve your score if it is low.
Get rid of shared accounts
Closeout joint accounts. Also, remove your ex from any of your accounts for which he or she is an authorized user, and ask your name be removed from their accounts if you are an authorized user there.
If both your names are on a checking or savings account, then both of you can take out all the money.
Likewise, if you share a credit card, line of credit (like a home equity loan) or personal loan, your partner can max out the debt without your approval, and you could be legally responsible for it.
Also, if your partner promises to make timely payments, but does not, that could affect your credit score as well.
Stay diligent about your finances
One of the most common-sense — and also tedious ways — to protect your credit — is to stay on top of all finances like a hawk. Get all statements sent directly to you each month.
Regardless of what your soon-to-be ex-promises, or what a separation or divorce decree requires, take responsibility for paying bills on time each month. Your credit score will be affected if they are not, and that will cost you.
Contact your lenders
For accounts on which both you and your partners’ name appear, officially notify lenders, banks and credit cards of your divorce.
Send a certified letter with a copy of the divorce decree, ask that they provide a current account statement and tell them that you do not intend to be held liable for any debt accumulated after the date of the letter.
Request the account be put on inactive status so no new additional charges may be added, and that once the balance is paid in full, the account is to be closed completely.
Manage your breakup emotions
Be practical. During a big breakup or divorce, you’re likely be experiencing a lot of emotions.
It can be easy to focus on your anger or sadness for your ex. Those are real feelings and you should work through them.
But remember that pillow talk is not enforceable in court, and trying to get him to uphold responsibilities he does not want to embrace is wasted energy.
Focus on what you can control, and keep your eyes on building a career, finances, and life of your own — the most beautiful opportunity divorce affords you. In short: It is up to you to protect your credit.
I know first-hand that going through a divorce can make you feel vulnerable in nearly every facet of your life, but financial vulnerability can be managed with some diligence.
What happens if you are indeed the victim of identity theft and fraud during a divorce or breakup? What if your child is the victim of identity theft?
How to protect yourself and your kids from 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 destroy your credit when they fail to pay those bills.
Child identity theft
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 to protect your credit, these solutions are pretty affordable 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!).
What is credit protection?
Aside from the DIY options listed above, 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.
There are some quality apps and tools that will monitor your credit for you. For a monthly fee, these services automatically monitor your credit score, alert you when there is suspicious activity, and typically protect you from any financial loss should you be a victim of identity theft.
These programs offer a combination of these services:
- Social security number tracing
- Social media monitoring (to make sure that your information is not used to create fake social media accounts—thus protecting your credit)
- 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!)
Which is the best best credit protection services to protect your credit?
Credit protection services from Experian to protect your credit
Experian’s Identity Theft Protection products automatically keep an eye on all of your accounts — for your whole family, insuring members up to $1 million insurance. Prices start at $9.99 per month. Start for free now.
Credit protection services from TransUnion to protect your credit
TransUnion Credit Protection credit monitoring program will automatically alert you when there are changes to your credit score and report, starting at $19.95 per month.
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.
Experian’s Family Identity Theft Protection products monitor the whole family for one low price automatically – so you don’t have to worry about how to protect your credit — or your children's.
In the event that the bad guys really do get through, or you make some honest errors in paying bills on time, take steps to repair your credit — either on your own, or with the help of a reputable credit repair company.
Related articles about credit repair, how to protect your credit, and identity theft:
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. 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.