Teen's secret charges discovered by parents

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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Dear To Her Credit,
Recently we've discovered that unauthorized charges have been on our cards. Then we filed a search for fraud on our credit cards. The next day, our son confessed that he's been using our card information online. He spent a total of around $2,000.

Now we want to stop the search for fraud within our credit cards, but I do not want my son going to juvenile hall or even jail. Is he safe beyond our discretion? Or will he be going through this punishment?    -- Virginia


Dear Virginia,
This happens more often than you might think. In fact, I know someone who called about a credit card charge they were sure was from identity theft, and the vendor asked, "Do you have a teenage son?" The parent said yes, but denied that her son would have done such a thing. The vendor said, "I'll guarantee that he did." Unfortunately, the vendor was right, and the son eventually confessed.

You're right to want to stop the investigation for fraud, in my opinion. Your son needs to pay back the money. He does not need an overreaction or a mark on his record for a first-time offense.

I asked New York attorney Bruce Provda, of Provda Divorce Firm, whether you can call off the investigation for fraud at this point. Assuming the credit card company is currently investigating the charges, Provda says, "If you are willing to accept the charges and pay them off, you can tell the credit company that you made an error and these are approved charges. They are happier to get their money and will stop the investigation. It is doubtful that your son will be involved."

"On the reverse side, if you do not want to pay this money back, the credit card company will definitely keep investigating and they may even involve the police," says Provda. Technically, your son is not responsible for his purchases since he is a minor, and you could take that argument to the card issuer if you refuse to pay the charges. The issuer may close your cards as a result. 

Things get more complicated if you have already contacted the police. "They may not be as willing to stop their investigation," says Provda, "but will eventually because they have other things to do." That's why whatever action you take, you should do it as soon as possible.

After an event such as this, it's common for teenagers to demand that you immediately start trusting them again. Trust can't be demanded -- it must be earned. You will probably only trust him after he builds trust back step by step. In the meantime, keep your credit cards and credit information in a less accessible place. There's no reason to tempt your son -- or anyone else who could have access to your home.

In the example story above, 15 years have gone by since a bored teenager used his mother's credit card. No charges were pursued, and the teenager did not follow a path to rack and ruin. He paid back every penny, and grew up into a responsible adult. I trust your son will do the same. Best of luck to you as you teach your son to take responsibility for his actions, now and for the rest of his life.

See related: Gettings teens to see plastic cards aren't 'invisible money', Why you should file a police report for fraud'

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Updated: 01-21-2019