Editorial Policy

Rescue mom or rescue credit?

Erica Sandberg

April 29, 2014

QHi Erica,

My mother is a prescription pill addict. She stole my credit card. This is the second time that I know of that she has used it to buy gift cards that she sold online and to others. Erica, this has ruined my credit. I have over $5,000 in unpaid bills that I can't afford. I am only 19. I feel I have no place to turn. I love my mom but she destroyed me in so many ways. When my grandmother found out, she said she would pay, but she hardly has any money, either. Will the credit card company, Wells Fargo, understand and let go of the debt? I don't want her to go to jail. She is on probation. The only other solution I can think of is to use my student loans, but then I won't have enough for next semester. Please tell me what to do. Thank you. –Gina

ADear Gina,

As an outsider, it's simple to tell you how to react. I could say, “Turn mom in immediately,” or, “Avoid her entirely until she proves that she is committed to getting well and not hurting you.” To me, these are perfectly reasonable suggestions because I don't want you to suffer any more. But she's your mom, and doing those things would not be easy.Ask Erica

However, I can help you contend with this particular financial problem, and explain how to protect yourself from further credit damage. Here are my professional recommendations. It will be your decision whether to use them.

Your first option is to make Mom deal with her consequences and free yourself of the debt she racked up. When your mother used your credit card without your permission, that was fraud.

Thankfully, the Fair Credit Billing Act protects you in this situation. As an account owner, you are not liable for unauthorized charges — as long as you go through the proper process to dispute them.

You can let Wells Fargo know that you did not buy those gift cards with your credit card, but unless you've alerted the authorities, it's highly unlikely they will let you off the hook.

Extricate yourself from the debt. File a theft and fraud report with the police. Since you know the perpetrator is Mom, you should name her as the culprit. Stating anything less than the truth is wrong, and that includes omission of relevant facts.

Then, provide Wells Fargo with the police report number, and the bank will remove that portion of your bill. They will send you a new card with fresh numbers and update your credit reports.

Contact one of three credit-reporting agencies to add a fraud alert to your files: Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. That agency will notify the others, and future lenders will have to verify your identification before approving a new loan or credit card. You can make it even more difficult for Mom to open accounts in your name with a credit freeze. It locks up your credit report, making it impossible for lenders to view your file without notifying you.

Your second choice: Protect Mom from legal troubles, but be liable for her fraudulent debt.

Whatever your decision, I do not think your grandmother should shoulder this burden, nor should you use your student loans to pay it off. That money is for your beautiful and bright future.

You can get support from those who truly understand what you're going though at Nar-Anon. This fellowship is comprised of people who have direct experience with the complicated problems associated with loving a person suffering from drug addiction.  I hope your mother achieves sobriety and that the two of you can enjoy a healthy relationship soon.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.