Know the Laws:
UPDATED March 18, 2015
Making or attempting to make a person financially dependent, e.g., maintaining total control over financial resources and withholding access to money, are some forms of financial abuse (also called economic abuse). Below is information on how to handle the aftermath of this type of abuse, including dealing with credit card debt and identity theft.
Financial abuse is one form of domestic abuse. Withholding money, stealing money and restricting the use of finances are some examples of financial abuse. To figure out if your partner is financially abusing you, think about how you are being treated by answering the following questions.
Does your partner:
If the abuser has access to your credit card statements, Social Security number or other identifying information, this can make it easier for him/her to open up accounts in your name or access current accounts. (If s/he has your children’s Social Security numbers, s/he can even try to open accounts in your children’s names.) You might want to consider taking proactive measures to keep your personal information safe.
Some actions you can take are to call your bank and credit card companies and ask that they change your account numbers, PIN numbers, passwords and other access codes. Try to create passwords that would be hard for someone to guess. If you access your bank account through your personal computer or if you store your financial information on your personal computer, make sure you are using a safe computer that the abuser cannot access and has not installed spyware on. To read more about keeping your computer safe, go to our Internet Security page. If appropriate and possible, you may want to consider enrolling in a reputable credit protection program through your current credit card company or bank. Please note, there may be a one-time or annual fee associated with such protection.
Generally, it is not a good idea to co-sign any financial contracts, including credit cards, with someone you do not trust completely to be honest and responsible about paying it off. If something happens, such as the other person disappears or refuses to make payments, you can be held responsible for paying off the debt and your credit can be ruined if you don’t make timely payments. If you have already co-signed on a loan or credit card and the other person has failed to make payments, please read information under the section After the abuser has taken your money and/or run up debt in your name.
There are various companies that allow you to request a free credit report. At www.AnnualCreditReport.com, for example, you can request a free credit report every 12 months by going to their website or by calling toll free at 1-877-322-8228. Don’t be fooled by websites or companies using similar names since many of them are not reputable. (Note: WomensLaw.org does not endorse this website and cannot vouch for their services; we provide this for your information only.)
Your credit report can show what accounts you have open and what the balances are on each. Check to make sure your credit report accurately reflects your financial history. If there is incorrect information or accounts that you don’t recognize, please read What can I do if someone opened up accounts in my name without my permission?
A fraud alert lets the credit card bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) know that you may be a victim of identity theft. A fraud alert can make it very hard for anyone to open new accounts in your name, and it can be a good idea if you are fearful of someone using your information without your knowledge.* A fraud alert will remove your name from all preapproved credit cards and it will require the credit card bureaus to call you by phone before any new account can be opened. Once you have successfully placed a fraud alert through one of the credit bureaus, they will let the other two credit bureaus know. Below is contact information for the three bureaus:
To dispute inaccurate information, such as a loan or a credit card that you did not open or one that you closed but that still shows up as being open, you can report it to one of the credit bureaus that shows the error and they will contact the company who initiated the account. For example, if your account reflects an open Sears credit card that you don't think you are responsible for opening or that you closed, then the credit bureau will need proof from Sears that you opened the account.* This process can take 30-90 days, so it’s a good idea to “clean-up” your credit report several months prior to a major purchase to ensure you will be given the best interest rates and terms available.
Below are links for the investigation departments of each credit bureau:
You can contact your credit card company directly and let them know about specific charges that you did not authorize. Some credit card agreements state that you are not responsible for any charges that you did not authorize and they will remove those charges from your account. Generally, however, before they will do this, you will need to speak to someone in their security department who looks into cases of fraud. You may also need to file a police report first about the charges – ask the credit card company.
Be cautious of companies or other offers that claim to “clean-up” or improve credit reports, particularly if they charge a fee for their services. Consider contacting a local, not-for-profit consumer credit organization if you want help through this process. For a listing of organizations in your area, you can contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Note: WomensLaw.org does not endorse this website and cannot vouch for their services; we provide this for your information only.
Maybe. If anyone (even a spouse, family member, boyfriend or girlfriend) uses your personal information to open up an account in your name without your permission, this could be considered identify theft. Some examples of personal information that someone might use are your Social Security number, credit card and banking account numbers, usernames, passwords, and patient records. Fraudulent (dishonest) uses of this information may include opening new credit accounts, taking out loans, stealing money from financial accounts or using available credit.*
Each state law defines identity theft differently. Some states may call it “identity fraud” or something similar. The Identity Theft Resource Center links to state-specific government websites that have the laws in each state. You can also find legal resources near you who may be able to help if you have been a victim of identity theft. Click on your state in the Identity Theft Resource Center’s U.S. map to find your local resources.
You can also call the Identify Theft Hotline to speak one-on-one with a counselor at 1-877-ID-THEFT.
To read more about steps you can take if you think you have been the victim of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission website on identity theft.
* New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence
If the abuser has accumulated debt in your name that has not been paid on a timely basis, there are some things you can do to dispute the debt in order to try to repair your credit score. However, depending on the factors in your specific situation, it may not always be possible to erase debt and to improve your credit score once the damage is done.
You can contact the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Response Center at the contact information below and explain your situation. They should provide you with information about the next steps you can take.
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
Washington, DC 20580
1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357);TDD: 1-866-653-4261
Keep in mind that you will most likely be held responsible for the debt on any accounts that you co-signed. If this describes your situation, please read more under the section Getting your money back and other help.
If the abuser has used your identity to commit fraud (i.e., used your identity to spend on your credit cards, open accounts, etc.), the abuser may have committed identity theft. Please read If someone opened up accounts in my name without my permission, is this identity theft?
One thing to think about if you are trying to leave an abusive relationship is trying to get access to personal and financial records. Do you know where financial records are kept? Do you have safe access to them? If so, you might want to think about making copies of those records and putting them in a safe place, where the abuser won't know about (but that you can easily get to quickly if you have to leave). You may want to think about getting a bank safe deposit box as a safe place to put these records. If you can afford one, it can be handy.
Some things you may want to keep a copy of include:
As a part of a divorce, debt that was built up during a marriage is usually split between the spouses, though not necessarily equally. What usually happens is that either the spouses will decide on a division of debt that they can both agree to OR a judge will divide the debt looking at a number of different factors. Depending on your state’s law, it could be possible that if you can prove that your spouse racked up debt for things that ONLY benefitted him/her and had no benefit whatsoever on the household, the judge might agree that s/he is the only person responsible for those debts. To figure out what your state’s laws say about the division of debt, and to find out about how the debt in your marriage might be divided in a divorce, we suggest that you talk to a lawyer. Go to our Finding a Lawyer page to try to locate a divorce lawyer in your state.
For general info on divorce in your state (but not specifically about marital debt), read about Divorce on WomensLaw.org.
If an abusive partner (to whom you are not married) failed to re-pay money that you lent to him/her or failed to make credit card or loan payments that s/he agreed to, you may be able to take the abuser to small claims court to sue for that money. You do not need a lawyer to go to small claims court, however, you can only ask for up to a certain amount of money. Each state sets a different limit for the amount for which you can ask. For information about going to small claims court, visit the Suing Your Abuser section of WomensLaw.org and choose your state from the drop-down menu.
If you are/were married to someone who you believe owes you money, this can be a more complex issue to handle. Generally, money earned during a marriage by either spouse is considered joint, marital property and so in the majority of circumstances, one spouse can’t really “owe” the other spouse money that s/he took or used during the marriage. There could be an exception, however, for private, separate property obtained prior to the marriage that is “lent” to a spouse during a marriage or for an inheritance that was left to one spouse during the marriage and wrongfully taken by the other spouse. Even in either of these circumstances, you may want to talk with a lawyer about your state’s marital property laws to make sure that the money/property that was used by your spouse can be traced to an individual source (like money lent to your spouse before marriage or money borrowed from a family member that was then lent to the other spouse).
For debts that one spouse accrued during the marriage, either in his/her own name or in the other spouse’s name, generally these matters are handled as part of the divorce. In a divorce, the parties will need to list any and all marital debt and the parties or the judge will decide how to divide this debt as part of the divorce. Generally, if debt is not declared/dealt with in the divorce, both sides may be prohibited from later suing for that money (unless the divorce decree specifically allows for this to be done in a separate proceeding).
Before suing the abuser, please consider your safety. It might help to talk to a domestic violence advocate or organization near you for this reason. You can find one under the Where to Find Help tab.
You may have a couple of options for getting reimbursed. First, you may be able to sue the abuser in small claims court if you can prove a direct link between the expenses and the abuser’s actions.
Second, if you have been the victim of a crime, including domestic violence, it may be possible to seek reimbursement from the Crime Victim Compensation Board in your state, which may help pay for certain expenses of crime victims. Each state has different rules for who is eligible to receive this money and how much money one can receive. Go the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards for more information and to read about the program in your state.
Third, if you are getting a protection order based on the violent incident that caused you these expenses, you might be able to ask the judge to order that the abuser reimburse you for your medical bills, property damage, and/or attorney’s fees. Go to the Restraining Orders page in your state to see if this is an option.