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Spousal identity theft is fraud, so fight it

Sally Herigstad

Dear Sally,
I'm divorcing a man who opened six credit cards in my name, using my information without my consent. He made himself an authorized user and ran the credit cards up.

We had the mediation for a divorce this week, and he is going to file bankruptcy. That leaves me stuck with $10,000 in credit card debt that I never signed up for and didn't use.

We have been hearing a lot of different things from different people, but I wanted to get your opinion. What do you think the best way for him to go about paying these off would be? Consolidate them all into one? Or try to get a bank loan with a lower interest rate? Or pay the highest interest one off first, slowly, as he can afford, and then move on down the line? -- Abby

Dear Abby,
From the credit card companies' perspective, it doesn't matter whether your ex makes payments or if he files for bankruptcy. The cards are in your name. He is only an authorized user, so they could not normally collect from him (assuming you don't live in a community property state, where any marital debt belong to both spouses).

That doesn't mean you should just give up and pay the debt. It was wrong for him to try to steal from you by racking up debt in your name. Unless you are well off and can afford to pay the debt just to put your ex and his shenanigans behind you, you should try to fight this case of spousal identity theft.

Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com, says, "We see this all the time. She would have to sue her ex and win to be relieved of any debt." Your ex already threatened bankruptcy, so I'm assuming there are no financial assets from the marriage that he could give up. Threatening bankruptcy and actually filing are two different things, however. If he has assets and hasn't actually filed for bankruptcy, you may still be able to sue. Make sure the legal costs would be worth it.

The other way out of this unauthorized debt is to report it as identity theft. Identity theft is a crime, even when it is committed against a person's spouse. Anyone who is capable of opening six credit cards behind their spouse's back and racking up debt should be stopped. Perhaps having to face the consequences will make him think twice before he tries something like this again.

Proving that you did not authorize these cards may not be easy. I still believe you should try. Siciliano says, "If there is a way to prove that she did not open these accounts, if her signature was forged, she has a shot." Here's what you should do:

Contact one of the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion) and tell them that credit cards have been opened in your name. They will put a fraud alert on your name so no one can open more accounts without your permission. You only have to tell one agency -- it will alert the other two.

Next, contact the Federal Trade Commission and tell them you've been a victim of identity theft. Call the FTC toll-free at 877-IDTHEFT, or go to the FTC's identity theft website, IdentityTheft.gov.

The next very important step is to file a report with your local police or county sheriff. You may be reluctant to do this, but you need this report to prove you were the victim of identity theft.

After you have taken the previous steps, notify the six credit card companies in writing that fraud has been committed, that you did not open the accounts and are not responsible for them. Close the accounts.

Disentangling yourself from debts with an ex is never pleasant, but it's especially bad in a case of outright identity theft. Taking money this way is just as bad as if he had stolen from your bank account or your retirement plan. He tried to take money from your future. Don't let him do that without a fight. Best of luck to you as you start a new financial life on your own.

See related: Debt and divorce: 5 steps to make a clean credit split, Don't ignore divorce decree mandate