Written by Alayna Okerlund | Last Updated February 24th, 2020Alayna Okerlund is a finance-focused Senior Content Strategist at BestCompany.com. Over the past three years, Alayna's finance-related research has helped readers feel more financially confident. She has worked with several reputable experts and has provided content for a variety of well-known publications like Forbes, Reader’s Digest, Lifehacker, and more.
It's Valentine's Day and you and your spouse are enjoying a candlelit dinner at your favorite restaurant. Everything feels picture perfect as you end your evening sharing a heart-shaped chocolate dessert. When you try to pay your check, your waiter whispers "I'm so sorry. It seems your card has been denied."
Your confusion later turns to shock when you call your card issuer and discover that your spouse has opened various credit card accounts in your name and has exceeded the credit limit on more than one of those accounts. This Valentine's Day is more sour than sweet when you realize you're the victim of spousal identity theft.
Spousal identity theft
Surprisingly enough, scenarios like this aren't that uncommon. Spousal identity theft is actually more feasible than other forms of identity theft because the thief doesn't have to try very hard to obtain a spouse's private personal information and data.
Spousal identity theft occurs when your spouse uses your identity for opening and using multiple credit card accounts, creating other fraudulent accounts, misusing social security numbers, signing documents, and more; all without your consent.
The tragic experience
Although spousal identity theft may seem like a distant worry for some, it became a hard reality for victim Jonathan Farley. Farley met his wife in March 2013. By 2016, Farley and his wife were separated after she had stolen "several thousand dollars' worth of items" and defrauded Farley "out of tens of thousands of dollars".
Farley's wife had previously used his credit card and "may have photographed the numbers on the back" which Farley thought "was odd, but innocuous." In September 2016, Farley realized his wife was trouble after she had stolen all of his new furniture and told him that she was connected to the Russian mafia.
Farley contacted law enforcement and tried to charge his wife with theft, but was told by a state attorney that his wife's actions were valid because she was his wife who shared his property. According to Farley, the state did not take any action of justice against his wife for her fraud and theft.
Farley tried to enhance his bank account security by adding more security questions to his bank account access, but was told he was not allowed to do so by his bank. His bank account is still connected to the original security questions; all of which his wife knows.
Farley's wife left the country shortly after she stole from him, requiring Farley to stay married to her for a year after they had separated by law. Farley intends to use professional identity theft protection services to help keep his identity secure once his divorce goes through and he can rebuild his savings.
Unfortunately, Farley's experience, like many victim of identity theft situations, did not have a happy ending. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), spouses are legally seen "financially as one person" in most states. This means that a spouse is legally allowed to access any financial accounts that another spouse opens or uses and also has the ability to open new credit lines with a spouse's information.
The ITRC states that "the only general exception to this rule is if they've forged your signature without your consent" which would be regarded as forgery and/or fraud.
Post-identity theft options
Victims of spousal identity theft have a few options to remedy their situations. One option is to keep the situation in the family. For instance, a couple could try to work things out on their own time between themselves instead of taking legal action. In this case, the couple would have to treat the financial infidelity as a debt they will have to pay off together since the debt will not go away via court case.
Another option is a legal separation, which gives the victim an opportunity to separate both physically and financially. Spouses that continue to open accounts under their spouse's name and information will be considered identity thieves and can be subjected to identity theft charges.
Additionally, victims of spousal identity theft can file for divorce if amends cannot be made. If the identity theft continues, then victims can notify the police and file identity theft criminal claims.
Preparing for spousal identity theft can be difficult. More likely than not, couples will share their personal and private information like social security numbers, birth dates, full names, tax return information, bank account number information, and credit card numbers.
Communication may help prevent spousal identity theft, but it may not always reflect a spouse's true intentions. One preventative step you can take is to make sure that you monitor your credit. Credit is often one of the first indicators of spousal identity theft.
Another step is to make sure you keep your important documents like your tax return documents and birth certificate separate from your spouse if they are acting suspiciously. If you have doubts or concerns, put a new, secure password on your phone and make sure you keep your phone close to you at all times. Many phones contain sensitive personal information and data that could be used in an identity theft scenario.
Lastly, one of the best things to do would be to hire professional identity theft protection services that will monitor your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus around the clock and will notify you of suspicious or fraudulent activity.
Overall, spousal identity theft is a real problem that affects many people on a regular basis. Staying aware of the dangers of spousal identity theft can help you prepare for stolen identity situations that may arise between you and your spouse.
If your marriage is founded on trust and honest communication, your chances of spousal identity theft will be lower than most. However, it's still good to keep in mind that there is no way to completely avoid all forms of identity theft.