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.
Dear To Her Credit,
I was a caregiver for my aunt and she told me to quit my $4,000-a-month job and she would take care of my bills. That worked as planned until she decided to stop, as well as report her debit card which I had permission to use (she gave me the PIN) to the bank, and tell me to get out of her house (this is 7 months into it).
Now my son and I are out on the street, and I used her American Express card to pay for hotel rooms. I’m scared she’s going to get me put into jail. I have multiple text messages and signed letters from her stating I have permission to use her card, and I have every receipt EVER for any purchase she had me make or otherwise.
I have also reached out several times with contracts and payment schedules to pay her back everything down to the last Top Ramen packet. She ignores it all. Seeing that I have very, very detailed and organized documents, and she has a track record of doing this to other people, as well as being a drug addict, are my chances of not getting doomed to years or whatever for fraud of some sort? Help please, I have a kid and I’m nervous. – Cassie
I don’t believe you need to worry about going to jail under the circumstances you describe. If the justice system sent someone to jail every time a cardholder lent a card and then changed their mind, the jails would be full of blindsided card users.
If she pursues you, the records you have kept are in your favor. Cardholders often claim they intended someone to use a card for a certain amount, or for specific purposes. However, the fact that she gave you her debit card PIN is evidence that you had permission to use the card. If her argument is that you spent more than she intended to, her argument isn’t nearly the same as when someone who says their card was outright stolen.
On the other hand, if charges are filed against you, you must take them seriously. According to Robert Siciliano, security expert with Hotspot Shield, “If or when situations like this turn into criminal matters, and the courts get involved, then it is up to a judge and maybe even a jury to decide on the defendant’s fate. This often becomes financially costly, emotionally taxing and time consuming.”
Even though you are likely to win, fighting the battle could be a drain on your resources for years to come.
Reaching out with contracts and payment schedules, as you have done, is a wise move. Even though you were given permission to use the card, especially while caring for your aunt, paying her back would help you cut the ties with her more quickly. “It is always best to proactively settle this out to avoid additional drama,” says Siciliano. If you keep trying to communicate with her and come to an agreement, be sure you have a contract written up and signed by both of you.
In the future, avoid this kind of “misunderstanding” by asking to be paid directly for caregiving or other services, so there’s no confusion about the money being yours. If someone offers to let you use a card, insist on being made an authorized user on the card before you use it. That way, you’re not at the mercy of someone else’s whims and moods and not liable for any charges.
The most important piece of advice I can give you right now is to look for and accept help as you need it.
If charges are filed, immediately seek low-cost legal advice in your area. In the meantime, if you and your son need food, shelter or any other help, you should find what you need nearby. Social workers, for example, know all the local resources and can be a huge help.
It’s tough to have to ask for help when you are used to being independent. However, by accepting help when you need it, you can get back on your feet more quickly so you can take care of yourself and your son.
I’m sorry you and your son are going through this stressful time, and hope you are on a better path very soon.
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