Expert Source: Charles Nelson, PhD, psychotherapist, trauma specialist, and founding member of the board of directors of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.
Identity theft claims millions of victims each year, as tech-savvy thieves drain bank accounts, pile up credit-card debt, or even obtain government benefits. In 2014, Americans lost $16 billion as a result of these crimes.
But if you’ve been victimized by identity theft, you know it’s not just about the money. This kind of fraud exacts a heavy emotional toll. You feel violated, a response that quickly turns to anger. Then comes the stressful process of trying to repair the damage to your finances and credit. And finally, you must deal with a lingering sense of vulnerability.
If the thief is somebody you know (as is often the case), your sense of betrayal is multiplied. Identity theft is traumatic, says psychotherapist Charles Nelson, PhD, who specializes in treating victims. Nelson offers the following strategies to help you recover from the trauma and emerge from the experience stronger and smarter.
Challenges to Overcome
- Shock and denial. “When people first realize their identity has been stolen, they often enter a state of shock that brings disbelief and even denial,” says Nelson. At this point, it’s hard to take in the long-term implications of the theft, he says. You may downplay the problem, thinking it will entail a quick fix or is no big deal.
- Feeling overwhelmed. Dealing with all the financial and practical problems that identity theft can present — canceling accounts, repairing your credit score, and more — can be a big job, Nelson notes, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Feelings of “How will I ever fix this?” and “Will this ever be over?” can sweep over you.
- Repeated stress. “The recoil stage is when you have a recurring flood of emotions around the identity theft — mainly anger and fear,” Nelson says. You’ve understood and accepted the fact that the theft has occurred, but you may have intrusive memories in which you re-experience one or more of the upsetting results of the theft. Anything that reminds you of it — a bank statement, a reference in conversation, a news story about identity theft — can send you back into a version of the initial shock and anxiety you experienced when you first realized what happened.
- Shame and guilt. Identity theft is often perpetrated by people known to the victim, says Nelson. If you’ve played an unwitting role in the theft by loaning somebody your computer or giving someone access to personal information, you’re likely to be hard on yourself.
- Fear and vulnerability. It’s natural to feel violated and exposed, says Nelson, especially because identity theft creates uncertainty. “You immediately wonder and worry, ‘Will I ever be able to get my credit back?’ and ‘How invasive has the theft actually been — how deep has it gone into my financial life and the rest of my life?’”
- Lingering anger. Nelson notes that you may be angry, even enraged, especially if you know the thief personally. And that anger can linger. “You can be irritable, impatient, on edge for a long time, to the point where people wonder what’s wrong with you,” he says. “What’s wrong is that you have serious life-changing issues pressing on your day-to-day functioning.”
- Depression. One of the most common results of any trauma, including identity theft, is depression and its many symptoms, Nelson says. “You may have difficulty experiencing pleasure and feel a sense of estrangement or detachment from family and friends and have less involvement with them.” Distractibility and trouble sleeping are other depressive symptoms that might emerge.
- Hypervigilance. The trauma may make you extremely alert and tense, fearing that another threat is waiting for you right around the corner. You may lose trust in family or friends, especially if the perpetrator is someone you know.
Strategies for Success
- Accept your feelings. “Whatever symptoms and feelings you’re having are probably normal,” Nelson says. You aren’t losing it or going crazy; you’re having a normal reaction to trauma.
- Vent constructively. “Talk about what happened with people who are good listeners, people you trust,” says Nelson. Try to avoid raging, complaining, or merely dumping, which can actually make you feel worse. “Have a real conversation, rather than a monologue.”
- Take control. “As you work on closing accounts, repairing your credit, and notifying the authorities, you may feel frustration and exhaustion,” says Nelson. “But you’ll also get glimmers of hope.” Other projects connected to your finances, like organizing your files or revising your budget, can help make you feel more competent and in control.
- Knock out some easy projects. Because repairing the damage from identity theft can feel endless, says Nelson, “one of the best things to do for self-care is to tackle a project where you get to see real results. If you weed your garden or sweep your porch or clean out the basement, you can see that you’ve accomplished something.”
- Take time for yourself. Take breaks from your efforts to repair the damage. “You can take mini-vacations in which you just veg out — or do things you love, like singing, or exercise, or playing competitive sports,” Nelson says. “Watching sports live is great, too — you can do a lot of good venting by cheering.”
- Don’t let the theft define you. “The identity theft happened,” says Nelson, “but it’s not a judgment on you, your habits, or the kind of person you are.” Remind yourself of the many responsibilities you meet capably on a daily basis.
- Get counseling. “If you find yourself stuck in self-recrimination or other negative emotions, that’s when you should seek help from a professional,” Nelson says. Some therapists specialize in identity theft, but any therapist with experience handling trauma should be able to help.
A wide-ranging source for information on identity theft and other fraud, and for help with recovery from their financial and psychological damage.
TV medical guru Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s explanation of the psychological toll that identity theft can take, and how to cope.
A Wisconsin insurance agency’s helpful list of ways to reduce the emotional toll of identity theft, including “Ardently Pursuing Happiness” despite everything.
The Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for how to handle the financial and credit hassles of identity theft, laid out in lists of concrete actions to take.