After a trying week dealing with the fact that an extremely close family member had been the victim of identity theft and bank fraud, I got to thinking about the potential for vulnerabiltiy of parties to a Denver divorce in terms of personal information, whether financial or otherwise. First, my story. While out of town in late February, a family member received an e-mail from a major national bank regarding her account and a potential security breach leading stoppage of her ability to access her accounts on-line. The e-mail came to her smart phone. Of course, all that needed to be done was simply clicking on a tab and on-line access would be restored. The e-mail had a flawless bank logo on the top. The tab looked real, unlike the code links we all get from time to time on spam e-mails. Of course she clicked on the tab.
Fast forwarding to this week, a call from the bank determined that multiple personal savings and checking accounts had been compromised. Several thousand dollars had been stolen. The theft started out with someone making transactions under $1, to test out the information gained through the scam e-mail and accessing the account information contained on the smart phone. In the end, multiple account were closed, new security measures were put into place, etc. This included putting a stop on all transaction coming from Western Union, the entity which ultimately accepted the scam transactions from her account. I was able to ultimately trace the theft to some pathetic cyber criminal in Lithuania named Ebi Crisofaris @ zebra.it. Had more money been taken, I just might consider hopping on a plane to Lithuania. Instead, I do the civilized thing a divorce attorney should do. I write.
Back to divorce and security of your personal information. In most divorces, the parties have been linked for years. They have shared all aspects of their lives, including social security numbers, bank information, passwords, etc. The sharing is wonderful when people are together and in love. However, with any divorce, there is potential for acrimony, anger, and the risk of a soon-to-be ex-spouse behaving badly. With any divorce, a person’s personal information can be at risk.
Perhaps the most important numerical piece of data each of us holds is our social security number. As most spouses know each other’s, there is little one can do to conceal their social security number. I have seen instances in which one party seeks to open up bank or credit accounts using the other’s social security number, whether before or after the case is filed. This is, or should be, criminal, as your credit is yours and the seeking of such is a right germane to you. If you determine your soon-to-be ex, or ex, has gained credit or is trying to do so without your approval, you should contact local law enforcement. In this day and age, one need only get onto the internet, armed with a birthdate and social security number, to gain a credit card. No signature, no picture ID.
Fortunately, the Colorado legislature and judiciary have gotten wise to the need to protect social security numbers. In the olden days, one might be required to report a social security number, or their kids’, on a divorce petition, a sworn financial statement, or a support order. Fortunately, this has changed. Now one need only provide social security numbers on one document, a “case information sheet,” which gets filed with the initial petition. Social security numbers are also still put into wage garnishments for support. Divorce documents are potentially public record, some being accessible on the internet. The less instances of your social security number being made public, the better.
Beyond the filing of court pleadings, another area in which your Denver divorce lawyer might ask you to provide sensitive information relates to financial disclosures. As part of your divorce case, you will be required to provide a sworn financial statement, tax returns and W-2’s, bank statements, credit card statements, and more. There is really nothing you can do to protect information related to joint bank or credit card accounts, or joint tax returns. The other party already had this information. However, you certainly have the ability to protect new accounts. You also have the ability to protect information related to new spouses, such as their social security number listed on a joint tax return, let’s say in a post-decree child support modification setting. Additionally, you may find yourself in a custody situation in which the other parent has never had your personal identification or financial information. Again, there are things you can do initially to potentially limit what they get.
When filling out your sworn financial statement, list only the last four digits of any account, maybe even the last three. Do not list them all. When providing bank or credit card statements, you should be able to blacken out all the account numbers but the last 3 or four. The opposing counsel in a Denver custody or divorce case only needs to identify and distinguish your various accounts. He or she does not generally need full account numbers to do his or her job. Likewise, if you are remarried and dealing with post-decree financial issues, by all means blacken out your new spouses social security number or any other sensitive information related to him or her. In some custody situations, again, parties may never have really be involved to the degree of sharing financial information of any kind. Why start because there is a court case? Blacken out those numbers. Share them only if required.
You have worked hard to amass your property or build your credit. Take what steps you can to protect it. The above stated being said, there is not much that can be done when the other side subpoenas bank or credit card records. Hopefully your case does not come to that.
Another area in which I see breaches in personal information security relates to passwords. We all have passwords for just about everything, whether e-mail, bank accounts, Facebook, or e-bay. Often times, spouse either share this information or jointly set up accounts, such as e-mail. Though access may once have been shared, there is no reason for that access to continue. You can bet that if your spouse has your e-mail password he or she might be tempted to use it. I have had numerous clients come to me asking if I want e-mails from their husband or wife’s account. The first thing I ask is how they came about this information and if they had permission to access the account? Generally, the did not. I then generally remind them that hacking into someone’s e-mail or facebook account may very well be a felony, whether at the state or federal level. I then indicate I can’t ethically receive an such ill-gotten information and advise them to stop. Remember that anything you say, including in writing, can be used against you in court. How would you like your personal e-mails to a third person popping up in your divorce or custody case. Don’t share your personal communications or financial acitivities with the world, including your ex. Upon separation, or even at that point when you know it’s over, change your passwords. You have the power to protect your personal information and on-line persona. Do it.
Identity theft is a serious matter, which I have learned first hand this week. You are in a unique position, going through a family law case, of having the person who was once most trusted in your life suddently becoming a potential security risk. You cannot protect yourself with 100% certainty. You can take steps to limit potential damage. As a divorce and custody attorney, I have seen it all.