Editorial Policy

The hard truth when a loved one steals your credit

Erica Sandberg

June 16, 2015

QHi Erica,

My son has gone through hard times, from drugs to prison. He is 26, has no credit or money and lives with me and my husband (his stepfather) for now. He is on doctor-prescribed medications (Lexapro and Klonopin) that make him very out of it, and I believe strongly that this medication is the reason he has used my credit card behind my back. My husband does not know about it yet, but the bill is for over $1,000, so he will soon. I’m shaking with grief and fear. I can’t let my son go to prison again. What can I do? Will the card company take it off my bill? Yours with hope and appreciation. –Jessica

ADear Jessica,

I’m so sorry you’re dealing with such a difficult and complex situation. While I can’t help with all the elements, I can shed light on the credit and legal matters as they pertain to the debt in question. This way you’ll have the clarity necessary for you to make the best decisions for all concerned.

It is important to understand your liability regarding those card charges. Contractually, only the owner (you) and people you specifically authorize are allowed to spend with your account. For example, you may add your husband or son as an authorized user by asking the company to send him a card imprinted with his name. Once he has it he can charge legally and it would show up on his credit report. The creditor couldn’t come after him for payment, though.

You could also allow others to use your personal card in an informal way. While not illegal, it is against the terms of the contract, so you couldn’t escape any debt they ran up. I don’t recommend this casual approach, but if you trust a person to adhere to your rules, it can work out fine. If you handed your son your card with the instructions: “Buy a week’s worth of groceries and keep the total to less than $150,” and he did, it would be a problem-free transaction.Ask Erica

However, this is not what happened. Instead, your son stole your card or its information, and either went shopping or took out a cash advance. Drugged up or sober, he committed credit card fraud, which is a type of identity theft.

So what can you do about it? You have a choice. First is to absolve yourself of the debt:

  1. File a police report. Contact your local police department and explain that your card was stolen and used. Since you know the perpetrator, you should name him. Detectives may not have the time or resources to conduct an investigation, but it is possible that they will and he might be arrested. Since he charged so much, the crime may be considered grand larceny in your state, which is a felony. For this reason, both he and you will need to obtain legal counsel as soon as possible.
  2. Notify the credit issuer. Tell them which portion of the bill is due to fraud, and provide them with the police report number. The charges should be removed from the balance.
  3. Add a fraud alert to your credit reports. You can get a 90-day alert that shows credit issuers that you were a fraud victim, and they have to take precautions when extending or granting you future credit. Because the criminal is a family member, a seven-year fraud alert makes more sense. Go to one of the three credit reporting agencies’ websites — TransUnion, Equifax or Experian — to apply. The credit bureau you contact will alert the other two. Depending on your state, you may even “freeze” your credit, which blocks lenders from accessing your file, so they can’t grant a credit card or loan.

Of course, you aren’t required to take this route, but if you don’t, the debt will fall in your lap. To keep your credit rating in good condition, you’ll have to satisfy it. Otherwise, your report will indicate late payments. If it goes too delinquent, the issuer can sell it to a collector or sue you.

To mitigate these problems, insist that your son delete the balance, either by returning or selling the items he purchased or by working and giving you the money. Remember, he owes you, not the creditor.

Also make sure he has no further access to any card account or your personal and financial records. Your son betrayed you at least once, and he may do it again. Stay safe. You can add the fraud alert to your credit file without naming names, so do it.

Finally, without knowing the dynamics of your marriage, I can’t tell you whether to open up to your husband, but in general, honesty is best. Wouldn’t you want to know if a crook — stranger or relative — is in your home?

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.