Personal Finance

What to do when personal identity theft becomes a professional problem

Key Points
  • A third of identity theft victims have experienced problems with work as a result of the fraud, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
  • Potential effects can include fights with your boss over time off, or even job loss and difficulties gaining new employment.
Ngampol Thongsai | iStock | Getty Images

Personal identity theft can easily become a professional problem.

One in 3 identity theft victims say they experienced difficulties at their place of employment, either with their boss or co-workers, as a result of the crime, according an initial analysis of 2017 trends from The Identity Theft Resource Center, a consumer advocate. (The full report is due out later this year.)

"This problem is so pernicious that it sneaks into different aspects of a victim's life," said Eva Velasquez, chief executive and president of the center.

When Alexis Moore discovered she was a victim of identity theft 15 years ago, she thought her background as a private investigator and debt collector would make the problem easy to unravel. But she quickly found that the banks she was looking to for employment weren't so understanding.

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"The first thing they want to do is check your credit," she said — and her prospective employers were more apt to simply move on to hire another candidate than ask Moore why her score was so bad.

"I realized I was going to have to be self-employed in order to maintain any sort of possibility of finding a good job," said Moore, who is now an attorney based in California, focusing on consumer advocacy issues including cyberabuse, inaccurate credit reports and debt collection abuse.

The problem Moore experienced is still one job seekers report encountering. In 2016, the most recent full year of data available, 13.8 percent of identity theft victims told the ITRC that their ability to get a job had been affected or that they had been unable to find a job as a result of the fraud — and 8.5 percent first found out they'd been victimized when they were denied a job opportunity.

"How do we put a dollar amount on that opportunity cost, and put a quality of life measurement against that?" Velasquez asked.

Safeguard your data

Among identity theft victims, about 7 percent of adults and 60 percent of children personally know the perpetrator, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Many are family members, but a few victims suspect co-workers.

Take precautions to secure documents and devices you bring to, or keep in, your workplace that have your sensitive personal information on them.

Other effects haunt victims at their current workplace. Most often, victims report difficulties tied to taking time off from work to resolve the fraud. The resource center found 22 percent of consumers had taken time away from work, post-theft.

Some bosses may be less understanding of that need for time off than others — especially if it affects your productivity, Velasquez said. There can be an immediate financial impact from taking unpaid days and a potential ripple effect when it comes time for a work review and raise. (About 6 percent of victims reported losing their job due to the identity theft.)

Depending on the nature and extent of the identity theft, victims could see their wages garnished as a result of the thief's actions (think unpaid tax bills or legal judgments), Velasquez said.

Experts say the best defense against workplace problems related to identity theft is to be proactive in alerting your current — or, if you're job hunting, prospective — employer.

Know your rights

About half of employers review applicant credit reports as part of the hiring process; more use a background check, said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

"With both credit checks and background reports, you have certain procedural rights," she said.

An employer must obtain your consent prior to undertaking such a check, Wu said. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, if they are planning to take an adverse action (i.e., not hire you), they are supposed to tell you before making a final decision, Wu said. That should give you a chance to explain that you've been a victim of identity theft.

Some states also have laws limiting the use of credit reports in employment decisions, Wu said. Whether such protections apply depends on factors including not just where you live, but also what kind of job you're applying for.

Talk to human resources

At your current workplace, it's smart to defend your reputation by proactively letting the human resources department know you've been a victim of identity theft, Moore said. Come prepared with a police report detailing the fraud.

"Make sure everybody in the place knows [you're a victim], so they know you're not a deadbeat," Moore said.

From a practical perspective, your employer might offer access to identity theft remediation services or other resources to help you resolve the problems, Velasquez said. They're also your best bet for navigating leave policies if you do need to take time away from work.

Criminals impersonating businesses on the rise

Look before you leap

If you're considering switching jobs, pull your credit reports from before you start your job hunt, to scan for red flags including identity theft, errors or other potential issues, said Wu. Among other protections, identity theft victims have the right to ask that information resulting from identity theft (like unpaid debts racked up by the thief in your name) be blocked from your report.

Alert job leads

Make prospective employers aware that you've been victimized, ideally before a background or credit check raises red flags. Moore advises adding a note to that authorization form on the application for a background and credit check, and providing a copy of the police report.

"It's better to head that off," she said.