What to do when family members use your credit card without permission

To protect yourself, report unauthorized users, even mom

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 CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Opening Credits,
I lost my job two years ago. My mom's been paying off my Capital One and my Old Navy credit cards. I had payment protection on my Capital One card, and it was all paid off. But then one day I open my statement, and find out that my mom has been using MY card to make purchases, and this has been going on for a year. I told her to give me my card, and she refused to do so, thinking that I would use it and seeing as I have no income, have no way to pay the bills. It seems like I have nowhere to turn. What should I do about the situation?  -- Julie

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Julie,
Interesting. Your mom came to your rescue in the beginning -- when you hit hard times and couldn't make good on your debt, she paid it down for you. Then, for some unknown reason, she decided to tap into one of those empty credit lines. Perhaps you told her that you'd pay her back, but then when you didn't, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Something tells me that there is more to this tale than mom going haywire over nothing.

Nonetheless, it is not OK for anyone -- close relative or total stranger -- to pay for things with a credit card that they are not authorized to use. In fact, it's a crime. Even if she felt it was justified. Now, if your mom did just go off the deep end and either gave into shopping temptations or became desperate for money, she also betrayed your trust. In that case, she would have to do a lot of work to regain it.

So let's get to how you can mitigate the financial and credit damage that you're now facing. First, you shouldn't be held responsible for the bills that your mother made. These are fraudulent charges, and the Fair Credit Billing Act states that as the victim, your maximum liability for unauthorized credit card charges is $50. That's a trifling amount in the first place, but most credit card companies have gone a step further and adoped a zero liability policy, where you would owe nothing for such unauthorized charges. I checked Capitol One's website and it is among the creditors who are protecting its cardholders this way.

A particularly strange part of this story is that your mom is refusing to hand the card over. However, you don't have to snatch it from her physically to stop her from spending with it. Just call the company and report the card as stolen. That will render it nothing but a useless piece of plastic. Other steps to take:

  • Contact the police. Report the crime. Yes, against your own mother. They will investigate and she could get in trouble. I say "could" because even when you know the person who scammed you and have proof, sometimes very little happens to the thief.
  • Alert Old Navy. You don't want your mom to do to your retail account what she did with Capital One. Let them know what has happened so they can prevent mom from racking up debt.
  • Notify the three credit bureaus. Place a credit freeze on your credit reports. This will prevent her from opening up any new accounts in your name, just in case she is so inclined.

As far as your credit rating, when your credit card company wipes the debt from your record, your reports and scores will rebound.

What remains now is what to do about your mother on a personal level. If she stole from you for no reason, she should make amends. Yet if you were partly to blame because you didn't repay her when you had an arrangement to do so, then you may have to shoulder some responsibility as well.

See related: When family members ruin your credit, How to cope with massive family credit card fraud

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Updated: 10-19-2018