Minors likely bear moral -- not legal -- responsibility for fraudulent debts

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,
A credit card company sent me a credit card when I was 15. I didn't sign for it, and I didn't ask for it. I opened the letter addressed to me and saw a credit card and went shopping. I received several more cards the same way and defaulted on them all in 2007, just before my 18th birthday. I'm 21 now, and I'm out on my own. Am I responsible for this debt? -- Melissa

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Melissa,
Hmm, let's see ... a credit card company mistakenly sent you a piece of plastic with your name on it. Naturally, you presumed it was manna from heaven, so you activated it, hit the mall and bought yourself some nice things. It's unclear whether you ever made a payment, but apparently more cards imprinted with your name were mailed to you, so the shopping continued.

Apparently your spending spree began and ended before you were 18, and now that there's a delinquent balance, you're wondering if you really have to pay. After all, you were just a kid then, right? Well, yeah -- the law may be on your side.

"In most states, the contract is voidable or invalid due to a lack of capacity to enter into a contract on the part of the minor," says Dallas-based attorney David Crooks. But don't start cheering yet. He warns that if the issuer believes you willfully misrepresented yourself in signing up for the card, the issuer might be able to sue for fraud. It's unlikely, but possible. And if found guilty, Crooks warns that you could be forced to pay for the damages. 

That said, there is a world of difference between moral and legal responsibility. I am absolutely appalled that you would ever think it's acceptable to charge, get the goods and then not pay for them. It's bad enough that you did it once when you were a relatively young girl, but that you continued this behavior several times is even worse. You stole from the credit card company, Melissa. If no one has told you this before, I'll say it now: What you did was wrong, and even if you get away with the crime, it will always be wrong. So while it's improbable that the creditor will sue, you can (and in my opinion, should) pay for what you charged. 

Whatever your decision, here's what to do so you can avoid future money messes:

  1. Never again take what isn't yours. While the credit card companies made a grave error, it was your choice to do the right thing. From now on, be financially ethical.
  1. Get a job and save money. I don't know if you are currently working, but before using credit cards you must know how to manage cash first. This means spending wisely, on things you really need. Make saving for both nonessential and emergency expenses a priority.
  1. Learn all about credit. Before applying for a credit card, understand how to use it. Consider CreditCards.com your classroom and read all you can about borrowing and repaying.
  1. Apply for a secured credit card. When you're ready to re-enter the world of credit, start up the right way -- legitimately, with a secured card that has a small credit limit.
  1. Monitor your money and accounts. Check all of your accounts regularly. Before charging a single penny, make sure you can and will pay the entire balance by the due date.
  1. Address problems early. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. When you do, attack them before they turn into huge problems. Don't avoid calling your creditors -- they want to hear from you when you're in trouble so they can help. 

Finally, don't blame anyone else but yourself for your actions. You are officially an adult, Melissa. Now act like one. (Can you tell I'm a mom?)

See related: Understand your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Credit card charges made by minors are invalid, Who's liable for a minor's medical debt?, State statutes of limitation for credit card debt

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Updated: 01-22-2018