LEGAL BRIEFING - 'Harmless error' does not absolve credit debt


Dear John,

A few months ago I got a new credit card. I started using it and charged a few hundred dollars before I noticed that they put the wrong middle initial on the card. My middle initial is ‘J' for Jane. The credit card company put ‘I'. Since the credit card company got my name wrong, do I still have to pay them back? After all, I am not the person whose name is on the card. Why should I pay someone's else debt?


Mary Jane Jones

Dear Mary Jane,

Wow! There are many reasons why your question is troubling. I am having a difficult time choosing where to begin. I suppose the best place to begin is: YES! Pay back the debt.

Here's why you have to do that. First, it is your debt. You used the credit. Therefore, you pay the debt.

There is a concept called "harmless error" that is applicable here. The legal system realizes that people make mistakes. Therefore, it allows people to fix mistakes when they are discovered, provided that no harm was created by them. Misprinting your middle initial on a credit card when it has the correct first and last name, address where it was mailed, and probably date of birth and Social Security number is more likely than not a harmless error.

Additionally, the contract, which you probably signed when you applied for the card and reaffirmed agreement when you used it, probably has a clause requiring you to cooperate with the issuer to bring errors to its attention in a timely manner or assume responsibility for damage if you don't.

Finally (because of limited space), if you decide to continue to claim that you are not the correct Mary Jones you could find yourself sued for fraud. Think of it as identity theft, where you stole your own identity. It is not a good thing to have a history of committing fraud.

Many of us wish that our bills would disappear. The common way for that to happen is to paying them. I hope that is what you do.




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