Identity theft among family members affects millions

October 21, 2011

Two million to three million elderly parents had their identities stolen between 2006 and 2010 by a younger family member for fraudulent reasons including opening lines of credit, according to a new study.

The report by ID Analytics is different from typical surveys on the subject, which only capture what people say. This time, company CTO Stephen Coggeshall says, the figures are based on analyses of 1 billion applications for credit cards and cell phones that showed just how many times younger family members apparently fraudulently used their elder parents’ credit.

“We are literally looking at the entire set of credit-active people in the United States. Even surveys wouldn’t uncover this, because a lot of victims don’t know they’re victims,” he says.  “The realities of familial identity theft are far worse than anything you see in a soap opera. It is the ultimate in family betrayal.”

Identity theft expert Linda Foley, who runs the consultancy ID Theft Info Source says the sad truth is family members steal each others’ identities because they can. “If you want to steal a Social Security number, it’s far easier to steal the information of someone close to you because you have easy access.” And she adds that this is a  grossly under-reported crime because  it’s particularly difficult for the victims to turn in their own children. “The egregiousness of this crime is the parents don’t feel the need to protect themselves from their own children,” she says.

Laws in most states adds extra penalties when the crime victim is a senior, and on Thursday Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced legislation  to protect seniors from fraud by court-appointed guardians and conservators. But legislation hasn’t yet translated into change. Last March when Mickey Rooney testified before Congress about elder abuse, he said he wasn’t a rare case of family members bilking money from older relatives, stealing their identities and committing other types of financial fraud. But what is rare about his case is that Rooney, 91, went public with it, and announced in September that he is suing his stepson and other relatives, alleging years of financial and emotional abuse that cost him millions.

The typical scenario of identity theft of older family members, Foley says, is when an adult child starts helping an elderly parent with the finances. When you’re older, she says, “It’s unlikely you’re going to be checking your credit report all the time. So they remain blind to the crime.”

When an adult child has been put in charge, Foley notes, that’s often who is informed when there’s a suspicion of theft.”If the adult child is the one managing the parents’ finances they’ll simply be told that someone is stealing their parent’s identity and they already knew that,” she says.

This is what happened to C.D., a Dallas-area petroleum engineer, who trusted his sons to manage his finances and investments that had built to a couple of dozen properties and more than $5 million (he still has legal issues pending, so his full name is not used). He told Reuters that he didn’t realize until recently that money had been siphoned off for years while his sons borrowed and borrowed against his credit. Bank correspondence that Reuters examined shows he was the victim of identity theft.

C.D., 72, says he was devastated. “You trust your family,” he says. “”I didn’t really want to believe it.”

To avoid these situations, Foley suggests that two people — preferably one of whom is independent, such as an attorney or accountant — to review all transactions of an elderly family member. That can be a safeguard both when a relative is given signatory authority for financial accounts or has durable power of attorney and to simply be sure the parent isn’t being preyed on by anyone else.

You can get more information about helping elders with their finances from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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