Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Steward Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets. Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Dear To Her Credit,
I was in an abusive relationship. I couldn't get anything
out of him, so I'm leaving my debt behind. He knows where I'm going. Can I be
traced for the debt? -- Kari
Many times, money problems and relationship problems become
so intertwined that it's hard to separate the two. That seems to be the case
here. You're running away from abuse and -- no surprise -- financial problems
are part of the problem.
You did the right
thing leaving the bad relationship. Leaving debt, however, is not so easy. If
you have debt in your name, moving doesn't get you out of it. You may not
receive your bills for a time if you don't leave a forwarding address, or if
you purposely stay with a friend or relative so you don't have your own address.
But your bills will still be there. Legally, you still owe them.
If you pretend bills don't exist for months or
years, you may think you got away with leaving them behind. Ignore those bills
for months or years, however, and they'll grow faster than weeds in your
absence. I've received letters from readers whose bills went up fivefold in a
couple of years, thanks to late fees, interest expense and, eventually, court
fees. Don't let that happen to you.
Your creditors will eventually find you, unless you
completely withdraw from society or start a new identity. (And don't even
consider doing that to dodge your debts!) How can they find you? Easily!
Here are just a few ways creditors can trace you:
Online white pages. If you sign up for a new,
listed phone number, a creditor or their agent can find you instantly.
Public records. Buying a house, for example, is a
matter of public record. Creditors used to have to go to the courthouse to find
this information. Now it's keystrokes away on county websites.
Not-so-public records. Firms such as Spokeo.com
gather information about you from various places on the Internet and provide it
to anyone who is interested. Spokeo lets you opt out, which I've done, and I
highly recommend. Other "people search" sites do not.
Facebook. Like to chat online or keep up with
your friends on social networking sites? Unless you have your privacy settings
clamped down extremely well, a creditor can search for you, find out where you
live, and check out your vacation photos. Debt collectors may even publicly shame you on Facebook in their collection efforts. (Debts or no debts, you should always
have your photo albums, Facebook wall and other personal pages set so only
friends can see them.)
Real-life humans. Creditors can and do talk to
neighbors, co-workers and relatives to try to find debtors. Many people-search
websites provide information on next-door neighbors and relatives, just to make
it easier. And don't rule out your ex spilling the beans. He has every
motivation to send creditors in your direction.
The point is not how to hide from your bills. As you can
see, that's next to impossible. You certainly can't start living the
productive, peaceful and fulfilling life you deserve and try to hide from debt
collectors at the same time. Further, unresolved debts can trash your credit score and make it more difficult for you to rent an apartment, get a job, buy a house or get credit you need.
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