Child charged merchandise on mother's account? Return it

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Question Dear Opening Credits,
My 11-year-old granddaughter used her mother's Amazon account to purchase a bunch of merchandise without her mother's permission and Amazon will not take them back. Is a minor allowed to charge legally? What steps do they have to follow to return these and have them cleared? Thank you for a response. -- Tim

Answer Dear Tim,
Your granddaughter needs to repackage all that "Frozen" gear (or whatever she bought) and prepare to part with it. Even if she was not previously aware that using someone else's credit card without consent was wrong, there should be no question in her mind that it is now. Therefore, she should not be allowed to keep the stuff. If Amazon isn't budging because too much time has passed since the purchase or the condition of the items isn't up to par, then merchandise ought to be donated to a worthy charity.

This doesn't mean that the mother is on the hook for the bill. Yes, it would have been easier for her had Amazon simply accepted the products and provided a refund, but there is another way out. Because your daughter's child used the credit card without her knowledge or authorization, fraud occurred, so she is not responsible for the charges.

According to the Truth in Lending Act, a federal law that protects consumers, the maximum dollar amount that your daughter should be liable for is $50, as long as she reports the theft quickly. So before any more time passes, she must contact her credit card company to file a formal dispute. Technically, she does not have to alert the police and obtain a report number, but it wouldn't hurt her case. The child is a minor, and won't be sitting in a jail cell over this matter. However, it would indicate to the credit card company (as well as her daughter) that a crime was committed. 

Now I'm not implying it will be an easy or fast problem for your daughter to solve. The credit card company may balk at first, causing her to spend considerable time on the phone. She'll need to write letters of explanation, too, and produce some kind of evidence that her underage child made those changes behind her back. Besides the police report, correspondence with Amazon showing that she did try to rectify the situation with them can help the issuer make a speedy decision in her favor. 

Eventually, perseverance should produce the action she's looking for, which is to have the unauthorized charges permanently purged from her account. Mind that while she's in the process of dealing with this mess, her credit rating may be negatively impacted. If her daughter charged a large sum, it could have pushed her balances too close to the limit. When the charges are removed, though, her scores will bounce back. 

It is extremely important that your daughter teach her tween about credit, money, the law and ethics. The child should be by her mother's side while she's communicating with the creditor and the police department, ready to admit what she did to all parties. Calmly and seriously, Mom should talk about what it means to borrow money with a credit card and how payments and balances show up on credit reports for a very long time. And finally, that using another person's plastic without permission is never OK. It's a criminal offense that, depending on age and other factors, can land a perpetrator in prison. 

See related: Who's responsible for child's unauthorized card charges?, How to undo unauthorized charges

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Updated: 01-19-2019