Adding yourself to spouse's card is fraud

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
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, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Dear To Her Credit,
My son became ill in March of 2013. His illness left him unable to talk. He had lesions on his brain and was in a waking catatonic state, unable to communicate with others in any way. He was highly confused and confined to a trauma hospital for two months.

In June, while he lay in the hospital on tubes fighting to survive, his now estranged wife got online and added herself as an authorized user on his credit card. The bank has confirmed this.

As soon as my son came to live at my home, she went crazy with the card. He has received the bill for $1,700 stating that he is responsible for payment. When we discovered what had happened and closed his account with the bank, the bank said that she had committed fraud.

Why isn't the bank holding her, not my son, responsible for the balance? How can a person add herself to an account without the cardholder's permission? Would a letter from his doctor stating it was impossible for him to OK her to be on his account help in your opinion, or is it a losing battle? -- Ally


Dear Ally,
This is a case of fraud, as the bank representative indicated. The bank can't do much about it, however, unless your son takes the right steps to report it as such. Discussing the problem with a bank representative is not enough. Unfortunately, since your son was the primary account holder, it is up to him (or you) to prove that he did not authorize these charges.

The first thing your son, or you on his behalf, should do is report the fraud to the police. You must have a police report to show that the case rises to the level of fraud.

You should also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

After you file a police report, you will want to send a copy to the credit card company, along with any supporting documentation that is outlined below. The bank may have an online form for reporting ID theft, or you can send a letter to the address on the back of the bank statement. (Make sure it's the correct address, not the address for sending payment.) Explain the circumstances and tell them that your son is not responsible for charges made by the fraudulently added user. The bank must investigate your claim.

Next, contact the credit bureaus and have a fraud alert  placed on your son's credit file. You only need to contact one of the bureaus, and that bureau is required to notify the other two. With the fraud alert in place, creditors see that your son has been a victim of identity theft, making it much more difficult for his wife or anyone else to open more accounts in his name. The initial alert will remain on your report for 90 days and an extended fraud alert for seven years.

If your daughter-in-law has gotten away with it once, she may be trying again. Who knows how many accounts she has opened or tried to open? Your son can also get a copy of his credit report for free at or at By law, you are entitled to one free copy of your report from each of the bureaus every 12 months. If he finds more unauthorized accounts, report them to the police and the bank in the same way you reported the first card.

You and your son should then file a dispute with the credit bureaus as well as the credit card issuer. You'll want to do this in writing and include any documentation, including the police report, a letter of explanation that includes the account information, perhaps a letter from his doctor and anything else you can think of that will support your case. The credit bureaus have instructions for filing disputes on each websites. The documents should be mailed with a return receipt request. Addresses for Experian, Equifax and TransUnion can also be found online. The bureaus are required to respond to your dispute within 30 days.

If your son and his wife lived together in a community property state, another problem is that even if your son is not individually responsible for the balance on this card, the credit card company may consider it to be community debt. Under community property laws, both spouses are assumed to have benefitted from debt incurred during a marriage. In that case, creditors could pursue your son for the debt, even if he would not otherwise be liable. Community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Alaska has an opt-in community property law.

Community debt laws are not uniform, however, even in community property states. Some states consider debt to belong to both parties until a divorce is complete; others only until the couple is separated. In any case, your son may qualify for an exception if he can show that he did not benefit from the purchases on the card.

It's unbelievable what people can do sometimes. Stealing a husband's identity while he lies in a hospital bed is a pretty low trick. Fortunately, with your help, he should be able to show that he is not liable for her purchases on his card or for any other accounts she may have opened in his name. I hope your son can put this behind him quickly so he can concentrate on the most important thing -- a complete recovery.

See related: 5 steps to dispute debt that's not yours

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Updated: 03-23-2019