Facing the consequences for unauthorized shopping spree

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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear Sally,
My boyfriend gave me his credit card number over the phone to pay rent while he was away. I used it to buy some things online, and now he is suing me for 19 charges I made. Can I go to jail or just pay him back? I have never been involved with the law before, and I am worried. – Cassandra


Dear Cassandra,
This doesn’t look good. Your boyfriend gave you his credit card number to use for a specific purpose. You used it over and over for unrelated purchases. You and your boyfriend agreed that you were not authorized to use the card number for anything except the rent.

This could go one of two ways. You may be able to persuade him to drop all legal action against you, probably by promising to pay him back. If you can return some or all of your purchases, or pay him back very quickly, this would be the best course of action for both of you. He gets his money without spending time and money going to court. You avoid the embarrassment, potential criminal record and possible punishment that results.

You may be able to calm your boyfriend down by showing him you are sorry, and figuring out how you expect to pay back every penny. After you return as many purchases as possible, calculate how much you still owe. Make a written plan to work extra hours, take side jobs if possible and cut back on your expenses to pay him back. You might have to sell your car or ask him to take it as payment. It’s better to go without a car than to be charged with theft.

If he is very angry (and with 19 unauthorized charges, who could blame him?), he may not want to back down. In that case, you should get legal counsel immediately. You are in serious trouble. I don’t know if you are likely go to jail, especially for a first offense, but you could end up with a criminal record that could keep you from getting a job you want and otherwise embarrass you and interfere with your life for years to come. The higher the total amount you charged without authorization, the more trouble you are in. If you can’t afford a lawyer, look for low cost legal help, or court appointed help.

Remember that if your boyfriend presses charges, he, the police, and the prosecutor will have to prove you are guilty. The fact that he gave you the number over the phone makes it harder to prove you were not authorized to use it.

Cooperate with your legal professional. Never miss an appointment, and always tell the truth. Do not talk to the police without your lawyer present.

I can only assume you are young and did not understand the seriousness of using someone else’s credit card without authorization. I hope you are honest at heart and wouldn’t consider shoplifting or other forms of outright stealing. Your boyfriend’s credit card, however, seemed different. He was your boyfriend, after all. He probably buys you things, and you may even share some expenses. You may have thought he wouldn’t even notice the charges on his credit card, or that surely he wouldn’t mind.

The problem, however, is that your boyfriend did not make you an authorized user on his card. He didn’t even give you the actual card. He only authorized you to use it once, for a specific purpose.

From now on, never entangle your finances with anyone else, except a trusted spouse. Tell your boyfriend to call the property manager himself and pay his rent over the phone. Keeping other people’s credit card information out of your hands is the best way to avoid problems like this in the future.

See related: It's not fraud if you lend your card out

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Updated: 01-23-2019