Dispute card accounts opened fraudulently by ex-spouse

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,
Toward the end of my marriage, my husband opened numerous credit cards and accounts in my name. When I called the issuers to tell them that I hadn't opened the accounts, they told me it wasn’t fraud. One of them said it wasn’t fraud because the person calling used my phone number. Another credit card company said that they’ve heard this before, and I can just sue my ex for the money. That’s not going to work because he is in jail and has no money.

Now I have a court date, and I’m scared. I think the cards were opened between January and April 2016. I’m not sure, because he was always the one that got the mail. Now I know why!

When I did the divorce papers, it was seven credit cards, totaling $18,000 in debt. I didn’t send anything in writing to the banks. I didn’t open the accounts or ring up the charges they are coming after me for. I didn’t report it to the police in Iowa where it all took place.

Now I’m in Florida, and I have no idea what to do. I don’t have the money to pay off the debt. The few lawyers I have consulted say I should file for bankruptcy. I have no proof I didn’t open the cards. Since the divorce, he sits in jail, so he won’t pay the debt.

What should I do? I received a summons to appear in court in October. – Jolene

Answer Dear Jolene,
Anyone opening accounts in your name, even your husband, is definitely committing fraud – despite what the credit card companies told you on the phone. The fact that he was calling from your phone line doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t you.

Ideally, you would have contacted the credit card company in writing from the beginning, and you would have filed a police report. However, the fact that you called the credit card companies is a start.

Brad Sadek, a lawyer with the Sadek and Cooper Law Offices in Philadelphia, says, “If you talked to the credit card companies upon discovering the fraudulently incurred accounts, they should have a record of such conversations, and you should be able to utilize their fraud protection.” Send the issuers something in writing, with as much information as you can gather.

“If the conversations with the credit card companies continue not to work in your favor, consider this situation as identity theft and file a police report,” Sadek says. You’ll need to contact the local police department in the municipality in which you lived in Iowa.

You should also contact one of the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion) and dispute the unauthorized credit cards that were opened in your name. Also ask to have a fraud alert placed on your credit reports, so no one can open more accounts without your permission. When you contact one agency, it alerts the other two.

Contact the Federal Trade Commission as well, and tell them you’re a victim of identity theft. Call the FTC toll-free at 877-IDTHEFT (877-438-4338), or go to the FTC's Identity Theft website.

If you have other debts that weren’t fraudulently opened by your ex, and you want to file for bankruptcy, Sadek advises that you may be able to object in the bankruptcy process to the “proof of claims” filed by the creditors for the fraudulently incurred accounts. 

If you are unable to get satisfactory results after following these steps, you should consult a local attorney or find low-cost legal assistance where you live. The stakes are high, and professional advice is worth the cost. Once you are armed with the police report and have taken all the steps above, gather all your documents and take them with you to court to state your case. Good luck!

See related: 5 ways an ex can ruin your credit during breakup, divorce, Ex’s ID theft thwarts new couple's finances

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Updated: 01-23-2019