Help! My Mother Ruined My Credit by Stealing My Identity.

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 13 2012 5:45 AM

My Mother the Identity Thief

My mom has been running up credit-card debt in my name. What do I do?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I recently reviewed my credit report and was alarmed to find several high-balance, delinquent credit card accounts I hadn't opened. I’m certain they were opened by my mother. She has never been financially responsible. When my father died she had to get a job and has always resented it. She spends profligately in order to "feel rich.” When I was growing up, we often lacked for necessities while she bought new cars and pricey clothes. Because she raised me alone I've always felt very protective of her. She and my stepfather have now fallen on hard times, and at her request I drained my life savings to help pay her mortgage. She claimed she would repay me, but hasn’t. I have barely enough to put gas in my car, but I felt that she would do the same for me. Now, seeing that she's been ruining my credit for years, I feel betrayed and furious. I struggled to put myself through school and get where I am today. I love my mother but I need my identity, and money, back. To sue her would ruin her. I don’t even know how to bring the subject up, and I’m sure she would deny everything. How do I call her out and start undoing the damage?

—Disgusted Devoted Daughter

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Dear Daughter,
Your mother made a lifetime choice not to deal realistically with her material desires, and now you are supposed to pay for her profligacy. She neglected your basic needs as a child while she indulged herself. Somehow you came out of this with the wherewithal to pay your own way, and even put something aside. Those savings are now gone because of her. It’s harsh to say your mother should start living with the consequences of her mistakes, particularly since they might be criminal. But it’s equally harsh to ruin the financial future of your child. I talked to Daniel Blinn, a Connecticut consumer-law attorney who has handled cases involving identity theft by family members. He points out you don’t actually know if your mother is the perpetrator and says you’re not legally required to reveal your suspicions to the credit agencies. But he says you must start taking steps to clear your record. You should get your reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus (order them free at AnnualCreditReport.com), then notify them in writing that your file contains fraudulent credit card accounts. He says it would also be a good idea if you inform the creditors you did not request their cards. (And since you’ve never received a statement, it’s probably no mystery where the bills are going.) Doing all the appropriate paperwork may be enough to clear your report. But if not, you need an attorney—look for one on the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Blinn says whether your mother is identified as the culprit, if that’s what she is, depends on how aggressively the creditors investigate this. He generally recommends fraud victims file a police report, but doing so could help point the finger at your mother, and whether to take that step is your choice. I will add that for your own sanity and security, completely cut her off financially. You say you believe that she would bail you out if you fell on hard times. But she wouldn’t, because your hard times are here, and she caused them.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Supermodel Envy

Dear Prudence,

My lifelong best friend “Sarah” is married to a man I respect greatly, “John.” A few years ago they got genetic testing from a commercial company in part because Sarah is adopted and knows nothing of her birth family. Sarah has OCD, and health concerns are her No. 1 obsession. (She is seeing a therapist.) Fortunately, the initial test results showed no problems. Sarah was relieved and is now pregnant. The testing company sends periodic email updates only John receives. A few months ago he got some bad news: Sarah carries two copies of the gene APOE-e4, which has been found to significantly increase one's risk of developing Alzheimer's. John called me for advice. His inclination was to keep it quiet because Sarah is sure to make herself miserable about this. Since there wasn’t anything to do about it, I reluctantly agreed. (I wouldn’t want such information kept from me.) Shortly after I spoke to John, a study came out finding that moderate exercise may bring down to normal levels the risk of getting Alzheimer's for those who carry two copies of APOE-e4. When I passed this to John, his response disturbed me. He said that perhaps Sarah should be told "someday," but she doesn’t have time to exercise much at this point in her life. He said that with her pregnancy she has been obsessing about health-related issues way too much as it is. I agree with not telling her while she’s pregnant, but I think she should know soon so she can make a decision about exercising. If he doesn’t tell her, should I involve her parents or her therapist? Or should I tell her myself?

—Uncertain

Dear Uncertain,
Right now Sarah’s mind is full of fears that she might have symphysis pubic dysfunction or that her baby might be a victim of fetus in fetu. You don’t have to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder to dwell on might go wrong with your pregnancy. So I agree with John that letting Sarah get through the next few months without worrying that Alzheimer’s will prevent her from enjoying her grandchildren is the best idea. You’re right that the new study about exercise mitigating the risk to those who carry this unfortunate gene variation is intriguing and encouraging. I also agree that those who find out they have two copies of the APOE-e4 variant should know there is potentially something to do to decrease the risk of dementia. But someone who suffers from a mental disorder that keeps her debilitatingly focused on her health must be given any such information carefully. Sometime after the baby is born and life returns to seminormal, tell John you have a suggestion about what to do about the information he shared. He can suggest to Sarah that now that they are parents, they should seek more thorough genetic counseling than the previous company provides. He should say it would be helpful to both of them to update their findings and have a discussion about them with a professional. (He can find one through the website of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.) The information John got in an email should be confirmed in any case, and a trained counselor will be able to handle the issues raised by this sensitive case. In the meantime, making exercise part of her life is a good idea for a new mother. So after the baby comes, when you get together suggest putting the infant in a stroller while you and Sarah catch up during a brisk walk.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am a 25-year-old woman working in a male-dominated office. I act professionally and get along with my co-workers. Recently, I've been getting invitations to spend time alone outside of work with some older male co-workers, some of whom are married with children. Activities range from going to the movies to teaching me how to shoot a rifle. While I enjoy office chats with these men, I don't feel comfortable spending time outside of work with them. On the other hand, I could be misreading friendly invitations to hang out with someone who could be a professional mentor. What should I do? And how do I decline an invitation without making them feel bad, or accept and keep the professional lines clear?

—Unintentionally Popular

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