By outside appearances, the plain white envelope addressed to my nearly nineteen-year-old son Eric looked fairly innocent.  There was no way to tell the important life lessons it would teach that day a few weeks ago.

As the steward of our family’s mail, I opened the envelope to find a letter addressed to my son, notifying him that he’d been declined for a department store credit card.  The letter sent a chill through me, reminding me of my bout with identity theft three years ago.  The first warning sign of what would become a six-month nightmare arrived in just this form – a letter declining me for a card for which I’d never applied.  A few telephone calls that Autumn morning soon alerted me to the fact that some vicious felon had managed to open eighteen accounts in my name, spending tens of thousands of dollars in a manner of days.  The tangled mess that followed in clearing my credit history taught me more than I ever wanted to know about identity theft.

So my first thought in seeing Eric’s letter was, “Oh no, here we go again!”  I was already picturing Eric and I walking through a series of credit fraud alerts, police reports, notarized affidavits and certified mail.

I took the letter immediately to my husband, who made a prompt call to Equifax to begin an investigation.  Our dear Eric, on a bike ride with a friend from school, remained blissfully unaware of the storm that was brewing.  When the time came for me to pick him up, I felt like the bearer of very bad news.

“Eric, we’ve got a real mess on our hands,” I shared with him as soon as we were together in the car.  I began to relate the details of the day’s mail.  “Wait, Mom,” Eric paused me in mid sentence.  “What company was it from?”

“What company?  Why?”  I queried.  Let me share here the background information that Eric has had possession of a student debit card for the past few years, and that we’ve discussed several times that when the appropriate time in college (or preferably beyond) arrived, we would begin the safe and proper development of his credit history with a well supervised credit account.  In my mind, that “appropriate time” is still a ways off.   We’d even gone so far as to discuss with Eric the fact that he would need a shredder in his dorm room to appropriately destroy the countless credit card applications that will certainly soon be filling his mailbox.  I thought we’d been pretty clear about our position on credit cards.

“Well, I applied for a card the other day at xyz Department Store.  But it wasn’t a credit card – it was a ‘rewards card’.  The lady at the cash register just asked me a few questions, told me I could save 30%, and signed me up before I knew what was happening,” my college bound son said innocently.

“Did she ask for your social security number?” asked mom, turning into an interrogator.

“Well, yes, I guess she did,” Eric admitted.

So in the end, there was no identity theft, only a teenager shopping independently who thought he’d save a few bucks on a pair of shorts he really wanted.

This story has a few morals.  I thought we’d been explicit in our financial conversations with our Eric, but obviously we still have a bit of financial mentoring to do with our son before he flies the coop.  He has now again been reminded of the importance of carefully protecting his personal identity, social security number and credit record.  We’ve added him to our identity protection coverage and given him stern “no plastic” advice.  When he hits college, thousands of miles away from home, he’ll have a budget to work with and a financial future of his own to build.  So moral number one for me is a reminder that even if I think I’ve been explicit about something, it’s likely that I really haven’t given my sons all of the information about everything they will need to know to navigate their way through life.

Moral number two in my mind is the relevance this has for Eric’s spiritual development.  In the same way that we’ve tried to teach him life’s lessons, I’ve made it my most important goal to share our faith traditions and teachings with both of my sons.  I’m proud of the fine young men they have become.  But as diligently as we’ve tried to prepare them for the moral choices and dilemmas that will litter their paths through young adulthood, ultimately I’m sure there are a few things I think I’ve taught them that either haven’t been explicit enough, or that haven’t really sunk in yet.  So I’m certain that I can expect a few surprises and a more than a few long distance lessons in the spirituality department too.

As parents, and as children of God, we’re all still working on earning our heavenly credit. 

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of and the author of The Handbook for Catholic Moms.

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