Wrong account info doesn't absolve debt responsibility

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,
If the credit card company has my Social Security number wrong, and I put it correct on the application, am I still liable for any debt on the card?   -- Candra


Dear Candra,
If only it were true! Unfortunately, a typo on your credit card account does not give you a pass on paying your bills.

Because so much of our financial lives are tracked by our Social Security numbers, it's easy to think that's all that really matters. Some might even think it's their lucky day if the Social Security number associated with their card is incorrect. There's more to you and your identity than just your Social Security number, however. Even when the credit card company errs and has your Social Security number wrong, I believe you still owe the balance.

You applied for credit, using your name, correct Social Security number, address, phone number and signature. You used the card to buy things. Every time you used the card, you were promising to pay the balance, plus any interest. By what logic should you not be liable for the balance? If you were to not be liable, who should be -- the bank that paid for your purchases? The person whose Social Security number matches your credit card number? There's only one person who benefitted from the credit and who promised to pay it back, and that's you.

It's interesting that you even found out your Social Security number was wrong. A person could use a card for years, make payments faithfully, and never know the number was incorrect. Typically, cardholders discover an erroneous number when accounts don't show up on their credit reports, or if the account is delinquent and the bank is taking some kind of action.

Another way you could have discovered the mistake is by seeing an "alternate Social Security number" on your credit report. The credit bureaus keep track of Social Security numbers used to report your information that are different from the one used for your file. This information is provided as a service to you, because different Social Security numbers can be an indication of mistakes or identity theft. According to Experian, if it shows a Social Security number that is no longer associated with any of your accounts, you can ask them to delete it from your report.

If your credit card is in good standing, and it's not showing up on your credit report, the wrong Social Security number could prevent you from benefitting from your account history and other positive information on your credit score. It's the worst of both worlds -- you still owe the balance, but your credit score doesn't reflect your good payment history.

The obvious solution to this problem is to notify the credit card company of the error so it can fix it.

You should do this as soon as possible. A mistake is a mistake. The incorrect Social Security number wasn't your fault, but it's not a get-out-of-debt card, either. Now that you know the number is wrong, it's your responsibility to make sure it's made right, and to pay your credit card balance as you promised to do.

See related: 5 mistakes people make when disputing credit report errors

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Updated: 12-19-2018