Finding yourself the victim of identity theft can be a really traumatizing experience. According to the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center’s 2021 Consumer Aftermath study, more than 80% of respondents reported anxiety, more than 76% felt violated, and 57% were depressed. In most cases, you’ll never know who has caused you all of the stress and upheaval; they’re simply a group of faceless scammers.
But what if the identity thief is your significant other?
Spousal identity theft is not just an especially deep form of betrayal, it’s a uniquely complicated crime to resolve.
What Spousal Identity Theft Is (and Isn’t)
Before getting too far into this discussion, it’s important to talk about what is, and is not, spousal identity theft. If you have a joint bank or credit card account, and your spouse uses it in a way you don’t agree with, that’s not identity theft or fraud. Similarly, if you’ve given your spouse a card as the second user on your account, that’s also on you. It’s not criminal activity but a disagreement over money, something most couples experience at times.
So where do you draw the line between “disagreeing over money” and outright fraud or identity theft?
Well, if your spouse forges your name as an applicant or co-signer, that likely crosses the line into fraudulent activity territory, especially as the creditor is concerned. So do purchases made from an account they have no legal right to access (i.e., accounts that are solely in your name, and that don’t list them as a user). In extreme cases, your spouse might furtively siphon away your assets, such as the equity in your home, or even resort to deed fraud to transfer the property from your name to theirs.
Some of these are pretty egregious, but others can be hard to prove, especially in the case of online purchases, which require no signature. It’s weirdly like a romance scam, except you’re actually in a real-world relationship with the person who takes advantage of you.
Spousal Identity Theft: Means, Motive, and Opportunity
Investigators look for three things when a crime occurs: someone who has the necessary means to commit the crime, a reason for going ahead with it, and an opportunity to act on that motive.
As for means and opportunity, your spouse or significant other (usually) shares a home with you, so sensitive papers like your statements, tax returns and personal ID are accessible. You may share a computer or know at least a few of each other’s passwords. Many couples also have joint accounts that you’ve deliberately opened together.
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That just leaves motive, and there can be plenty of those. A few potential examples include the following:
- If one partner is frugal and the other’s a spender, the spender may feel the need to carve out a bit of space for illicit emotional or impulse shopping (“I thought you’d be mad if you knew…”).
- One partner might bring concealed debts into the relationship, and tap into the other’s credit to put them to bed.
- One partner might have an addiction, from gambling to substance abuse, which requires more money than they can earn legitimately.
- One partner might face a temporary shortfall or crisis and fraudulently take out new credit to cover it, but think, “I’ll put it back before they notice it’s gone.”
- Similarly, one partner might be seduced by a business or investment opportunity (legitimate, or fraudulent) that the other would never go for, and counts on “a home run” to make things right.
- Using money as a form of revenge after some form of misbehavior (like an affair) on the partner’s part.
In short, if you’re the one with more assets or better credit, it’s easy for your partner to take advantage.
But one other motive for spousal identity theft may be the most consequential of all, and deserves a closer examination.
Spousal Identity Theft as a Form of Abusive Control
Often a spousal identity thief is acting out of poor impulse control or failure to think things through, not malice, and they’re genuinely remorseful about the stress and financial difficulties that result. For controlling, manipulative or downright abusive spouses, on the other hand, the stress and financial damage resulting from their identity theft is the entire point.
Controlling and abusive spouses work very hard at isolating their partners and eroding their will. This includes cutting them off from friends and family, minimizing their interactions with co-workers and the community at large, and — wherever possible — controlling the household’s finances. That’s not hard when one partner is the sole earner, but it’s a bit more complicated when you both have good credit and income or assets. In that case, deliberately burdening the spouse with debt through identity theft — “weaponizing” it, if you will — is a useful tool for abusers.
The Law and Spousal Financial Abuse
Most jurisdictions don’t recognize forms of domestic abuse other than violence — which can have the paradoxical effect of forcing partners to stay with their abusers until the situation does escalate to violence — but this is changing. In 2013, New York became the first state to add spousal identity theft to its list of reasons for court-ordered protections. Texas passed a law in 2019 to formally class identity theft and coerced debt as forms of domestic violence. In 2021, Connecticut similarly passed “Jennifer’s Law,” sparked by a case of coercive control turning deadly.
While the tide appears to be turning in favor of victims of spousal identity theft, your rights and protections will vary widely from state to state. If you’re in an abusive situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers discreet assistance by phone, text or online. The Women’s Law website, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, also has excellent resources, and more may be available to you at the state level.
Dealing with Spousal Identity Theft (It’s Complicated)
You’ll usually recognize the spousal identity theft the same way you do any other identity theft, by spotting illicit transactions on your accounts or seeing something weird on your credit report. The difficult part comes in deciding how to proceed from there.
It’s emotionally complicated, because you have feelings for this person, and that’s what makes the sense of betrayal sting so badly. There’s also the risk of pushback from friends and relatives, who may urge you to “keep it in the family” or — if applicable — “think of the kids.” Abusive or manipulative spouses may even persuade your own friends and family that you’re the villain in the drama, and turn them against you.
In an ordinary identity theft case, the response is straightforward: You report the incident, you get the financial charges reversed, and hopefully at some point the criminal is arrested. It’s not that clear-cut when you have to decide whether to report your significant other.
Spousal Identity Theft Is Really Hard to Reverse
Trying to “split the difference” by undoing the fraud, while not filing an official complaint against your spouse, is seldom an option. Legally, couples are largely considered to be a financial partnership, and there’s an assumption that any spending or borrowing by one spouse has the other’s approval.
That means asking your bank or credit card company to reverse a charge or close an illicitly opened account is problematic, because it comes down to whether you’d consented to the loan or purchase. That’s difficult to prove, often pitting one partner’s word against the other’s. Financial institutions aren’t courts of law, and (not unreasonably) don’t want to be in the position of deciding who’s telling the truth. They just want their money, and you can’t really blame them. It’s the business they’re in, after all.
The bottom line is that your card carriers and financial institutions will vary widely in their responsiveness, and their willingness to work with you to undo the damage. In some cases, they may require you to file a police report, or at a minimum to report the fraud or identity theft to the FTC.
Protecting Yourself in the Short Term
The very first thing you should do, if you decide to pursue restitution, is to request a credit freeze at the major reporting agencies. This makes it much more difficult for your spouse to open new accounts, and limits the risk of them deliberately causing more damage now that the relationship is on the rocks. It won’t help with the existing accounts, but it’s an important precaution.
Talk to your bank and credit card carrier, and take what steps you can to reduce your spouse’s access to your accounts and assets. You might preemptively transfer money from joint accounts to your own solely held accounts, for example (talk to a lawyer about this, if you’re divorcing). If your spouse is an authorized user on your credit cards, have the carrier remove them from the account. If you can physically find the card, confiscate it.
Your spouse has had access to your personal information for a long time, so to an extent this is “closing the barn door after the horse gets out,” but start keeping your personal papers and financial statements under lock and key. Change the passwords on your accounts, and start password-protecting your devices to keep your spouse out. Oh, and remember to change the PINs and passwords on your credit and debit cards.
Resolving Spousal Identity Theft in the Legal and Credit System
If you do opt to file a police report and potentially proceed with charges, that hard decision may only be the start of a long and painful process. For one thing, in some jurisdictions, you may find it difficult to persuade the police to even open a file, let alone proceed with a prosecution.
Be prepared to document the fraud extensively, and to spend a lot of time working with the credit reporting agencies and your creditors to challenge and resolve the individual charges and loans. Similarly, if you are successful in having a criminal investigation launched, you can expect to work with police and (potentially) prosecutors to help them make a case.
The other complication in many such cases is that they’ll take place alongside a divorce, or at least the preliminaries of a divorce. Resolving the financial impacts of spousal identity theft will make the divorce negotiations all the more difficult (you’ll really need a lawyer). On a positive note, once the divorce is final, there will no longer be any question that your finances and your partner’s are fully severed.
Putting It Behind You
Everybody’s situation is different. This might be a brief aberration in a long and otherwise-stable relationship, something you can get through with an earnest conversation and some boundary-setting. At the other end of the scale, it might involve a lengthy court battle to resolve the financial issues and finalize a divorce. In some cases, you may ultimately remain out-of-pocket for some or all of the money you’ve lost.
Recovering financially from identity theft is a topic worthy of a whole other article (you’ll find it here), but that process is reasonably well-established and follows a predictable course. Your emotional recovery may take longer, and isn’t likely to conform to any established roadmap. Be kind to yourself: Your trust was deliberately abused by your partner; you’re not to blame.
Get the help you need, up to and including counseling. Spousal identity theft can leave deep emotional wounds, and it would be unfortunate if those were the most notable thing you take away from the relationship.
- Identity Theft Resource Center: 2021 Consumer Aftermath Study, Non Pandemic-Related Responses
- Mathis, Marifian & Richter: Preventing and Fixing Deed Fraud
- Identity Theft Resource Center: When You Personally Know the Identity Thief: What Are Your Options When You Know the Imposter?
- Women’s Law: Financial Abuse: Credit Cards
- Law360: Why Marital Identity Theft is So Hard to Fight
- Ms. Magazine: Connecticut Protects Coercively Controlled Women and Their Children
- Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee: Testimony in support of (1) Raised Bill No. 1060, “An Act Concerning Court Proceedings Involving Allegations of Coercive Control” and S.B. No. 6, “An Act Concerning Domestic Violence and Criminal Justice Reforms”
- State of Connecticut: Highlights of Jennifers’ Law PA 21-78
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Here For You
- Women’s Law: About Abuse