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Dear Money Mom,
I’m a 30-year-old writer based in New York, and I have an unemployed deadbeat dad with whom I’ve had an off-and-on relationship my whole life. He’s also been stealing money from me ever since I had any; when I was 12 and he’d come for biweekly visits, he’d go through my stuff and take my babysitting money; when I was in college, I learned he was borrowing from the trust fund my grandfather (his father) left me when he died. And lately I’ve been getting weird spam emails and snail mail from banks that come to my correct address but reference a random town in my home state. Is there a way I can scan my credit score or all financial institutions to figure out if he (or any other scammer) is using my name and SSN to buy things or open accounts? Asking my dad point blank isn’t an option; I’ve caught him lying to me on countless occasions. What can I do?
A few years ago, a polite waiter informed me that the debit card I’d presented for my dinner bill was “not working,” a nice way of saying “declined.” When I checked my account, I found that it was overdrawn by more than $3,000, thanks to a Pretty Woman–style shopping rampage that included purchases at Saks, Intermix, and an eyelash-extension salon called Ideal Eyes. My identity thief had even used my name to place an order with Rent the Runway, which she picked up herself (and never returned, obviously). She wasn’t just some shadowy bot on the internet; she was a living, breathing human, walking around with new eyelashes that I had paid for. I felt like I knew her. It seemed almost personal.
It would be even more sickening to really know your scammer — or be related to him. Sadly, this happens all the time. One financial adviser told me about a man who’d opened several credit cards in his father’s name —easy-peasy, because it was the same as his own. Meanwhile, young children are frequent targets of identity theft because they have “clean” credit histories and, being busy with kindergarten and all, won’t notice if their FICO score takes a dive. Some victims don’t find out that their credit has been trashed until they’re denied a student loan for college.
“Unfortunately, parents are in the best position to take over a child’s identity, because they know all the relevant information to create new accounts in their child’s name,” says Liz Weston, a certified financial planner and personal-finance columnist for NerdWallet. Parents are more likely to get away with it, too. “The best way to fight back and clear your name is to file a police report, which exposes your parent to the potential of getting arrested, and most children aren’t willing to do that,” she adds.
But before we get into police territory, let’s examine your problem, which encompasses three possibilities: (1) your dad has tapped into your trust fund, (2) he’s used your identity for shady dealings, and/or (3) he might try to do so (again) in the future. There are different solutions for each.
A breach of your trust fund is separate from identity theft. Every trust arrangement is unique, and subject to various state laws, but the entire point of creating one is to park assets under the watchful eye of third-party protectors, known as a trustees. Your trustees (there must be multiple, for check-and-balance purposes) have a fiduciary duty to the trust’s beneficiary (that would be you), meaning that they are legally required to act in your best interest, financially. This probably includes rebuffing your dad if he comes sniffing around. If you suspect that your dad has wormed his way past the goalies — or is trying to — you should figure out who your trustees are and talk to them about it. It’s their job to be on your side.
Back to the dark world of identity theft: As you suspect, there’s a real chance that your dad could be trying to use your financial information as collateral to open lines of credit for himself. Luckily, it’s easy to learn if he has succeeded. You have a legal right to access your annual credit reports for free on annualcreditreport.com, which is authorized by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (for more information on how to do this, read here). You can procure them online in under five minutes — I know because I just tried it myself. Sift through them for suspicious accounts, mortgages, loans, or any other funny business; you’ll know it when you see it. Weston also recommends contacting any random banks who send you unsolicited mail to confirm that they don’t have accounts open in your name.
If you do discover something dodgy, put a fraud alert on your credit report immediately. In fact, you might consider doing that anyway, even if everything appears kosher. A fraud alert is like TSA for lenders and creditors: it makes them go the extra mile to verify your identity before extending credit, ostensibly to ward off those with nefarious intentions (i.e., anyone who isn’t you). An initial fraud alert is free for 90 days; after that, you may have to pay a small fee to continue it, but if you’re a victim of identity theft, you usually won’t be charged. (For instructions on setting it up, read here.)
As a further precaution, you could also freeze your credit. This basically puts your financial identity on lockdown, thereby blocking any applications for new credit — including yours, so remember to factor in a “thawing” period if you’re trying to get a loan or new credit card. In some states, the freezing and thawing process will involve minor fees; you can learn more about it here.
If this is still keeping you up at night — or you’d rather pay someone else to deal with it for you — you could shell out for a credit monitoring service, like Lifelock or CreditSesame. These are for-profit businesses that cost money (usually between $20 and $30 per month) and include bells and whistles like identity-theft insurance and text alerts for anything that looks odd, ranging from big purchases to a change of address. What’s more, they’ll do damage control if the shit hits the fan. “If you want help cleaning up a mess, you might consider paying for it,” says Weston. However, if things are ship-shape, you’re probably okay with just freezing your credit and watching your mail.
One thing that’s not worth your energy: reporting a Social Security number compromise. Since about half of America is in the same boat due to the Equifax breach, it’s a moot point these days. However, Weston does advise that you create an account on the Social Security website, just to ensure that someone else doesn’t do it first and gain access to your earnings record and other financial information.
Finally, if your dad (or anyone else) has wreaked serious havoc, it’s time to bring in the big guns. This isn’t technically necessary if the offenses are easily reversible — for instance, I never had to inform the authorities about my freshly eyelashed impostor, because my bank reimbursed me and mitigated any long-term harm. But if your credit score has taken a hit, you’ll need to file a report with the FTC, which requires a police report.
Of course, no one wants to call the cops on her own father. It’s a personal choice, not just a financial one. If you’re struggling with it, the ID Theft Resource Center provides guidance for victims of parental identity theft, and will walk you through the steps. It sucks that you have to do this, but no dad should make his daughter live a life of paranoia.