Can authorized user be arrested for card charges?

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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Question Dear To Her Credit,
My ex-boyfriend gave me a card with my name on it for use in emergencies. I’ve used it for the things we discussed were emergencies, such as my elderly Shih Tzu’s vet bill and for care and rides for me for two months while I was recovering from shoulder surgery.

Last night he threatened me, telling me if I charged one more thing on the card he would report it stolen, have me arrested, and forever mess my life up. (Nice, isn’t he?) Is this true, since the physical credit card has only my name on it and I am an authorized user? – Pamela


Dear Pamela,
No, someone cannot authorize you to use a credit card and then have you arrested for using it. The fact that he actually had a card made with your name on it and gave it to you is proof that you were authorized to make purchases.

Despite the arguments about whether the card was just for emergency use, and about what constitutes an “emergency,” you were legally within your rights to use the card he gave you. If he took you to court now, the courts would not be interested in the discussion about whether your dog’s vet bills were truly an emergency in your then-boyfriend’s opinion.

It’s not uncommon for the credit card holder and an authorized user to have vastly different ideas about what they agreed to pay for with a credit card. Sometimes couples have a fight when they discover how different their definitions of an emergency are. I knew a woman whose boyfriend gave her an emergencies-only credit card, only to discover that his idea of an emergency would be something like a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere. Her idea of an emergency was a beautiful leather jacket on sale.

Other times, any credit card usage seems to be OK – until the relationship falters. Then, the card owner looks more closely at his or her statement, and suddenly all that spending isn’t OK at all.

The good news for you is that your ex apparently isn’t threatening you with criminal prosecution for your purchases in the past. He’s only saying he will report his card stolen if you use it again.

Even though you seem to be safe from prosecution for your past purchases, the situation going forward is another matter. According to his statement, your authorization to use this card has been revoked. He may have notified his credit card company that you are no longer an authorized user. As the cardholder, he has the absolute right to cancel an authorized user at any time.

The best thing you could do now is to give him back the card, so he knows you are no longer using it. If you have written down the card numbers anywhere, delete or throw them away. If you put any recurring charges, such as internet services, on the card, be sure to cancel them or switch them to another card.

If you don’t have a card of your own, and you don’t have enough credit history to qualify for your own, you may need to apply for a secured credit card first. You’ll need to put money in a connected savings account, with the amount equal to your credit limit.

Problems like the one you experienced as an authorized user are great examples of why unmarried couples – or friends or family members – should think twice before commingling finances. Money changes relationships, and changes in relationships affect how people think about money. You’re far better off maintaining your financial independence. You need your credit cards, your emergency fund, and a plan for your own financial future.

See related: Authorized users don’t have to pay up, How to remove an authorized user from a credit card account, Authorized user not liable for ex’s card balance

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Updated: 12-14-2018