Dear Penny: Should I Tell My Boyfriend I Stole His Identity?

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Dear Penny,

About a year ago, I came on hard times and did something I’m not proud of. I used my boyfriend’s Social Security number to open a credit card in his name. I was out of work and couldn’t get a credit card on my own. 

I used the card to survive and bought groceries and prescriptions, etc., and also used it to pay some bills. I haven’t made any new charges since I got a new job.

The balance is around $4,800. I’ve always made the minimum payment (about $245 right now) on time. If I die, would he be responsible for the debt? Will I hurt his credit score?

— E.

Dear E.,

When you used your boyfriend’s Social Security number to open a credit card, you committed identity theft. That’s a serious crime. If your boyfriend were the one writing me having just discovered that his significant other opened a credit card in his name, I’d tell him he should consider filing a police report.

What you really need is advice from an attorney. (I almost hate to say that because lawyers cost money, and part of me feels like you should put every cent you have toward paying off this credit card balance.) None of what I’m about to say is intended as legal advice. I’m going to focus on how your actions could affect your boyfriend’s credit and how you might mitigate the financial damage.

Dear Penny

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Your boyfriend is already responsible for that debt from the perspective of the credit bureaus because they think he’s the one who applied for the credit card. If you died, presumably the payments would stop. In that case, he’d probably find out about the credit card once debt collectors start calling or because a black mark appears on his credit.

But that credit card you opened is still affecting your boyfriend’s credit, even if he’s not aware it exists yet. Payment history isn’t the only credit factor that determines your score. Credit utilization, i.e., the percentage of your overall credit you’re currently using, is also a big factor, accounting for 30% of your score. The average age of your account and hard inquiries, which appear on your reports when you apply for new credit, affect your score to a lesser extent.

Because your boyfriend is carrying a credit card balance, even though he doesn’t know it, his debt-to-income ratio is now higher. That balance could make it harder for him to qualify for a mortgage or car loan.

My non-lawyerly opinion is that the morally correct thing to do is to tell your boyfriend about what you did. Again, whatever an attorney tells you should supersede my advice. He’s pretty likely to discover it at some point if he’s at all vigilant about monitoring his credit. If he finds an account that he doesn’t recognize and disputes it, his bank will likely launch an investigation that could lead back to you.

Telling your boyfriend what you’ve done will hands-down be one of the hardest conversations you’ll ever have. Expect that this will end your relationship. Give your sincere apologies, but avoid making excuses.

Offer him a plan that shows you’re serious about paying off this balance as quickly as possible. This can’t be about doing what’s convenient for you. You could apply for a second job and offer to put the entire paycheck toward this debt. Think about whether you have any belongings you could sell to pay it off faster. Maybe you could offer to set up automatic transfers from your bank account each month or sign a promissory note to show you’re committed to making things right.

If you can get the balance down to $0 soon and make on-time payments, the damage to your boyfriend’s credit should be relatively minimal. When you reduce your credit utilization by paying down a balance, your credit score rebounds pretty quickly. None of that is meant to minimize this breach of trust. Again, my advice is intended to minimize the damage to your boyfriend’s finances.

You made a really big mistake here. That doesn’t mean you can’t recover from this serious lapse in judgment, but you do have to deal with the consequences of your actions. The best-case scenario is that you make major sacrifices to pay off the debt you charged up quickly. But be prepared for the worst-case scenario that your boyfriend does decide to report you to authorities.

All of this is scary, no doubt. But I’m guessing it doesn’t feel good carrying this weight around, either. The sooner you face the consequences, the sooner you can recover from your mistake.

Trying to climb out of debt? Here are 50 ways to bring in extra money this month.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].