It’s bad enough an identity thief targeted you, and now you have to live with the consequences and clean up the mess. What’s worse is that the impact of identity theft can last for months or years.
The negative effects of identity theft
Identity theft or identity fraud happens when a thief gains access to personal information like your name, address, credit card or bank account numbers, Social Security number, phone or utility account numbers, passwords, or medical insurance numbers—and uses that information for their economic gain.
The actions you need to take, the length of recovery time, and the consequences of having your personal information stolen will depend largely on what kind of identity theft you’ve experienced. In extreme cases, some people have spent more than six months resolving financial and credit problems associated with identity theft.
Identity theft’s negative impacts often involve finances, but there can be other consequences, as well, including an emotional toll. For example, if a thief commits a crime and provides your name to police—something known as criminal identity theft—and authorities arrest you as a result, well, you can imagine the resulting stress, as well as disruption to your life until you’re able to resolve the situation.
In this article, we’ll discuss the four different ways victims can be affected by identity theft:
The financial hardships that may be caused by identity theft can last for months or years after your personal information is exposed. Depending on the type of data identity thieves put their hands on, the hurdles in the recovery process can include:
- Disputing an identity thief’s activity in your credit files and working to restore your good credit
- Cleaning up and closing compromised bank accounts, and opening new accounts
- Working with the Social Security Administration if an identity thief has used your Social Security number to obtain employment
- Working with the IRS if you find that you’re a victim of tax refund identity theft or that an identity thief’s income, using your Social Security number, makes it appear you’re under-reporting your income
Through account takeover, identity thieves can also take over your investment and other financial accounts, the impacts of which could affect your retirement, your mortgage, and your child’s education.
And identity theft isn’t necessarily something you can forget about, especially when it involves sensitive personally identifiable information like your Social Security number. Thieves may not use your information for months or even years—waiting for a time when you may not be as attentive to the risk. Thieves can also sell personal information on the dark web. You may have to stay alert and watch for red flags indefinitely.
If your identity theft issue is so complicated that it requires expert advice, legal fees could add to the financial impact.
In fact, some victims end up reaching out to the government for assistance while recovering, which shows the potential magnitude of identity theft hardship.
Perhaps a less obvious impact of having your identity stolen is the emotional toll that can accompany it. Identity theft is often a faceless crime that can trigger a host of emotional reactions. The first feeling that victims may experience is anger. But after the initial shock, other challenging and long-term emotions may come into play.
For example, someone who steals your identity can commit crimes in your name, which can directly harm your reputation and be stressful to fix. If you’re applying for a job and a criminal record pops up in your background check, it may affect not only your employment but also your feelings of self-worth. Not only that, criminal identity theft could lead to your arrest before you’re able to clear up the confusion.
Victims could blame themselves or their family members for not being careful enough with their personal information.
Because identity theft can be anonymous, victims may experience feelings of helplessness. A 2016 Identity Theft Resource Center survey of identity theft victims sheds light on the prevalence of this emotional suffering caused by identity theft:
- 74 percent of respondents reported feeling stressed
- 69 percent reported feelings of fear related to personal financial safety
- 60 percent reported anxiety
- 42 percent reported fearing for the financial security of family members
- 8 percent reported feeling suicidal
While you clean up the messy trail of ID theft, the emotional stress can disrupt your sleeping and eating, and lead to depression and isolation.
And what about the emotional stress of receiving calls from debt collectors? When someone else racks up debt in your name, it can be challenging to prove the debt isn’t yours. Plus, you need to take steps so the businesses and collections agencies stop reporting the debt as yours.
Identity theft issues could also manifest as physical symptoms.
In its 2016 ITRC survey, 23 percent of ID theft victims surveyed feared for their physical safety, 39 percent experienced an inability to focus, 29 percent reported new physical illnesses such as body pain, sweating, and heart and stomach issues, 41 percent had sleep issues, and 10 percent couldn’t go to work due to resulting physical issues.
If someone is using your name to commit crimes and law enforcement arrests you, that’s a highly stressful event. And before you clear your name, your arrest record may still pop up on background checks, affecting everything from employment to your housing options down the road. For example, you could lose your home if your credit and mortgage are affected. You could lose your job if your work is affected, and you could also fail to obtain new job offers.
The ITRC survey found that of those respondents who experienced criminal ID theft, 55 percent missed work, 44 percent lost out on an employment opportunity, and 29 percent ended up needing government assistance.
Clearing your name of criminal charges can take a lot of effort, as you have to do everything from figuring out where the thief was arrested and providing law enforcement with identifying documents and your fingerprints, to changing all incorrect records from your name to the thief’s name.
Thieves that have your Social Security number may also be able to access your medical benefits and even have an impact on your medical records. This could lead to significant consequences when you’re under a physician’s care or there’s an emergency and providers don’t have the correct health information—or you no longer have medical benefits to cover you.
In today’s cyber-focused world, the Internet is another way identity thieves can gain access to personal information like passwords to your email and social media accounts. Whether you rely on social media for your profession or use it to stay in touch with friends and family, hackers could damage your reputation or put your job on the line by using your current accounts—and even creating new, fraudulent accounts—in which they post while pretending to be you.
On a more basic level, recovering from identity theft could affect personal relationships as you feel all of these stressors—and also if you ask family and friends for help and financial assistance while you get back on your feet.
Identity theft can have many lasting negative effects on its victims. One of the best things to do is act quickly to limit its impact—and seek help. Depending on the type of ID theft, this can involve reaching out to a variety of entities, including the three major credit reporting agencies, banks, the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the Federal Trade Commission and law enforcement. Victims who are suffering emotionally and physically also may need to seek the help of medical professionals.
If you’re a victim of identity theft, visit the FTC identity theft website for a step-by-step reporting and recovery guide to help you cope with the many challenges you may face.