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What to do when a family member ruins your credit

Q. My wife recently checked her credit report and found several accounts on it that she did not open.  After further review, we noticed that some of the accounts were opened years ago, before my wife even turned 18. We suspect that my mother-in-law used my wife’s Social Security number to open these accounts because she could not get credit in her own name.  Even worse, some of these accounts have past due balances on them. What can we do to clear this up?

A. Identity theft is a tough pill to swallow; it’s even worse when someone we love is behind that theft. Sadly, familial identity theft happens more often than you might think, and sorting through the aftermath takes some guts, time and lots persistence. 

To handle this situation, your wife will need to contact each creditor’s fraud department and explain that she was not of legal age to open the accounts. She will also need to be ready to explain that she believes her mother was responsible for doing so. Your wife should be prepared to provide proof that she was not old enough to open the accounts.

After this, the creditors in question will probably advise your wife to file a police report, which is the equivalent of turning her mother in for fraud. Filing a police report will be necessary for closing the accounts that don’t belong to your wife. In the meantime, you and your wife may also consider consulting an attorney who can offer you legal counsel.

If you and our wife would choose not to turn in her mother, you really only have two other options. You could live with the bad credit, knowing that creditors could come after your wife for payment and late fees. Or you could pay the accounts in full. The latter option will show the accounts have been paid, but the delinquency will continue to appear on your wife’s credit report and continue to affect her score negatively for years down the road.

It can be tempting to cover someone’s tracks because we love a person and want to protect them from difficult consequences, but I’d advise you to meet the problem head on—and the sooner the better. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

You don’t want to find out you are unable to purchase a car or home because of accounts that don’t belong to you. Ultimately, you and your wife did not choose to be put in this situation, but you have been forced into resolving it.

Bonnie Spain is the executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Black Hills, a United Way member agency. For more information, email credit@cccsbh.com.

The material in this transmission is provided for personal, non-commercial, educational, and informational purposes only. ACCE makes no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this transmission and assumes no responsibility for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any inconsistency herein. You should consult a professional where appropriate.


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