Identity theft can be more than a hassle — replacing credit cards, closing bank accounts, or changing passwords. But for some victims, it can be a life-altering experience that also causes serious emotional problems and can even drive some to consider suicide.
"Some victims get very depressed. They feel shame and embarrassment. They feel extremely vulnerable," Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center, told NBC News. "There are some really, really strong emotions that go along with this crime."
For its 10th annual Identity Theft Aftermath report, ITRC surveyed 176 victims across the country to gauge the long-term impact of having their identity stolen.
The top three financial impacts of identity theft were not being able get credit cards (38 percent), being denied a loan (34 percent) and being in debt as a result of the crime (28 percent).
Physical and emotional consequences included stress, trouble sleeping, inability to concentrate, fatigue, and panic attacks. The survey found:
- Three-quarters of the respondents were severely distressed over the misuse or attempted misuse of their personal information
- Nearly 80 percent felt annoyed or frustrated; 56 percent said they felt anger or rage
- Nearly 67 percent were afraid for their financial future; 37 percent worried this incident would harm their family's financial security
- Sixty-six percent felt violated; 58 percent felt vulnerable
- Seven percent said they considered suicide
Many victims do suffer significant financial problems, which can add to the emotional burden. Some sell possessions to pay for expenses, while others pile up credit card debt.
The report, released in October, concludes: "Whether borrowing money from family or friends, applying for government benefits, or having to change jobs, victims are not only having money taken from them by a thief, but they are having to spend their own money — and others' money — to regain their footing and return back to a somewhat normal life, pre-identity theft."
Always looking over your shoulder
Byron, a lawyer in Missouri, had to shut down his practice after ID thieves began impersonating him. He does not know how or when the breach occurred, but the trouble started in July. Because the problems are ongoing, Byron asked that we not use his full name.
The crooks applied for credit cards and small loans, opened wireless phone and checking accounts in his name. They also unlocked his frozen credit files at the big three credit reporting agencies, created a counterfeit version of his business website and sent bogus bills in his name.
"It has been emotional, always feeling like there's something left undone," he said. "It makes you very paranoid."
Byron has spent hundreds of hours trying to deal with the never-ending fallout from this crime. For two straight weeks, this was all he did. Like many victims of ID theft, Byron is frustrated by the lack of help he's received from law enforcement agencies. He has tried to maintain a positive attitude, but realizes the many challenges that lie ahead.
"I've resigned myself to the fact that this will never end. I will be dealing with this until I'm dead," he told NBC News.
We're all vulnerable
Stephen Isaacs is a senior fraud investigator at CyberScout, an identity theft prevention and recovery service. He works one-on-one with victims.
"They typically feel vulnerable," Isaacs said. "Before it happens, people think this can never happen to them, but once they realize someone is using their personal information, they can be extremely distraught."
Dealing with the damage — contacting creditors, preparing fraud affidavits, and filing police forms — is both "time consuming and frustrating for these people," Isaacs told NBC News. "Calls to creditors can last hours."
More than 60 percent of the respondent to the ITRC Aftermath survey said that they still had not resolved all the issues that resulted from their identity theft after more than five years.
The Equifax breach, which exposed 145 million Americans, has increased the risk of identity impersonation for half the country. And with all the thousands of other breaches that have taken place in the last few years, everyone should assume their personally identifying information has been — or will be — compromised.
Related: Equifax Blames Hack on One IT Guy
That means we all need to be more vigilant, to watch for the warning signs of identity theft and take action immediately if we find something suspicious.
"Historically, we've looked at white collar crime as not that big of a deal; it's just money and money can be replaced," the ITRC's Velasquez told NBC News. "But there's still a loss here. It's the ability to live your life and pursue future opportunities and goals. Identity theft has these tentacles that can impact every aspect of your life."