A reader, widowed in January, wrote to us to ask about collections calls she’s getting regarding her late husband’s store credit card. The couple had used — and paid as agreed — this line of credit for 45 years.
She said that although she continues to make payments and the retailer continues to accept them, she is also getting calls from a debt collector. The most puzzling part: “ Three or four times a week I am being hounded by this collection agency to settle this account even though they say I am not obligated to pay it (emphasis added).“
Why would someone call you repeatedly about a “debt” if you don’t have to pay? Florida consumer lawyer Billy Howard with Morgan & Morgan said it’s harassment, but with calls that use the “magic language,” acknowledging that the widow does not actually owe the money. However, if she wants the calls to stop — and who wouldn’t? — she might be tempted to pay just to avoid dealing with them anymore. The collector is essentially saying: “I want to collect some money, but you’re not obligated to pay it. I’ll call you again tomorrow.” They’re counting on you to eventually pay something, even if you don’t owe it, just to end the harassment.
If a debt collector calls, Howard said, the collector is required to send the consumer a letter notifying them of the debt (by law within five days of the initial call). “But if somebody says you are not obligated to pay, you don’t pay,” he said. ” Why should you?”
What Kind of Cardholder?
Howard says there has been a push recently by banks to attempt to get authorized users to pay when a primary cardholder dies. Authorized users can use the primary cardholder’s credit card to make purchases, but bear no responsibility for paying the bill. “Under no circumstances is an authorized user responsible for the debt,” he said. (That is not true of joint account holders or co-signers. In addition, spouses may be responsible for debts incurred during their marriage if they live in community property states.)
As for our reader, it’s essential she clarify whether she is a joint account holder or just an authorized user. If the commenter is unsure, a credit report (which she can get for free) can be a good place to begin. It should indicate the type of account (joint, individual, authorized user, for example). She could also request her late husband’s credit report to see what it says; here’s how to get the credit report of someone who has died. If she was an authorized user, it would not be unusual for the account to be closed upon the primary cardholder’s death, because authorized users are not responsible for the balance on the cards.
Ultimately, if she determines she’s not legally responsible for the debt, she can tell the collection agency to stop contacting her, and by law they must stop calling and writing, except to confirm the request or to notify her of legal action. If the calls continue after that she can either contact a consumer law attorney or file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Finally, if our reader has no credit aside from being an authorized user on that account, she’s going to want to build credit in her own name. With a limited credit history, a secured credit card may be the way to go. Used responsibly — keeping the balance at no more than 30% (10% is even better) of the credit limit and paying as agreed — the card will help her gain a firm footing. She can check her credit progress monthly on Credit.com for free. Whether you’re trying to rebuild credit or not, regularly checking your data can help you spot problems, or even fraud, early, and limit the damage.
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