Identity theft is largely an invisible crime; someone quietly steals your identity and uses it for financial gain. Yet, the impact on victims is real. Many lose money and time, but there’s another cost that’s not so easy to quantify – the emotional toll. As identity theft increases — there were 13.1 million victims of identity fraud in the United States in 2013 — psychologists and therapists are beginning to examine the emotional fallout for victims.
Many identity theft victims suffer financial stress and deal with emotional effects similar to those experienced by victims of violent crimes, ranging from anxiety to emotional volatility.
“The financial impact of identity theft can be lasting, but so too can the emotional toll as victims fight to regain their identities,” says Trey Loughran, president of Equifax Personal Solutions. “It is important to make consumers aware of the emotional effects of identity theft and tips for overcoming them. Armed with the right knowledge, victims can take control with minimal financial and emotional damage.”
What are some of the psychological effects of identity theft?
Identity theft victims often show emotions “much the way a trauma survivor would respond or somebody who was a victim of a different kind of crime, such as a home invasion or assault,” according to Diane Turner, a licensed clinical social worker and certified life coach based in Chicago, Illinois, and Tucson, Arizona.
Turner says victims often experience emotional effects, including signs of grief similar to depression, heightened anxiety, loss of confidence in areas where they typically had confidence, sleeplessness, emotional volatility, difficulty eating, self-medicating with alcohol or food, and loss of motivation.
The emotional effects of identity theft can include:
- Stress. From filing police reports to reestablishing credit, it can take some time for victims to get finances back in order. Those who already have financial hardship or are still recovering from the economic recession might feel extra stress due to financial strain.
- Self-blame. If a victim feels his or her identity was stolen through carelessness or a mistake on the victim’s part, the victim may be embarrassed and blame himself or herself for the crime having taken place. Some victims are hesitant to seek help because they believe their own actions or inactions may have contributed to the crime.
- Vulnerability. Identity theft is an invasive crime and for some victims, the worst part is they can never put a name or a face to the thief. “Trying to identify who the person was gives us this false sense of control,” Turner says. “It’s kind of an illusion, but it does make us feel better.”
- Isolation. The anonymity of the crime can also lead victims to feel isolated as they search for the person who committed the crime. Axton Betz-Hamilton of Charleston, Illinois, and her family members were victims of identity theft when she was a child. For years, they distanced themselves from friends and other family members who could have been the culprits. Although she eventually found out who stole her identity, she lived for a long time with a mentality to suspect everyone. “Every time I went in a store or had a group interaction, I wondered if the person who stole my identity was there.”
- Family strife. Javelin Strategy and Research reports that most identity theft is committed by family members or friends. Everything from gambling addictions to unmanageable debt can lead someone to target a relative and steal his or her identity. When children are victims, it’s often the parents, foster parents, or other family members who are the culprits.
Betrayal by someone they love and trust can be emotionally devastating for victims. They may not report the crime to law enforcement in an effort to protect a loved one. There’s often pressure to keep the matter in the family, leaving some victims to suffer alone and recover financially on their own.
“Think of the assault—the trust that’s broken when someone does that,” says Turner. “If the thieves are a group of people who live in a foreign country and are complete strangers and it’s totally random, in a way it’s almost easier to recover from that. If you find out that it’s somebody who’s close to you, that’s a whole different ballgame.”
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