When Corporate Cards Hurt Personal Credit

VIDEO: Company credit cards and your credit score
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They go by many names: corporate cards, company cards, travel cards and purchase cards. Whatever you call them, American workers charged $140 billion on them last year.

And if you don't know how yours works, you could be responsible for that balance.

Plane tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, office supplies, plumbing supplies, party supplies -- these are all things your company could ask you to charge. But beware: if you use a corporate credit card, there's a chance you could be stuck with the bill.

VIDEO: Company credit cards and your credit score
Can Company Credit Cards Affect Your Credit?

Charley Heiges used to work for a company that manufactured duck hunting decoys. But when the company went under, Heiges felt like he was the one being hunted -- over his $10,000 company credit card tab.

"I was beside myself," Heiges told "Good Morning America." "There was absolutely no communication at all indicating that I would be liable for a credit card I was using that belonged to a corporation that I worked for."

According to the business research firm RPMG, 35 percent of corporate cards have individual or joint liability arrangements where the employee is responsible for the debt.

CLICK HERE for Web Extra tips on what to do before, during and after your make purchases with a corporate card to protect yourself.

And, believe it or not, large companies -- including many fortune 500 firms -- are the most likely to make their employees personally liable for their company cards.

"This is just so destructive to individuals like myself that had no idea that this could happen," Heiges said.

Heiges' employer had never paid his final bill. He found out when he got turned down for a personal loan and the loan officer told him he had a lousy credit score.

"I just went numb. I said to her, 'You must be looking at the wrong credit report,'" Heiges said.

The idea of paying your company's delinquent debt is bad enough, but the impact on your credit score is even worse.

Heiges' score plunged more than a hundred points, causing a ripple effect he says cost him tens of thousands in lost business opportunities. He said he is hoping to find an attorney to help him sue.

"My credit score had been destroyed. My life had been destroyed," he said. "I basically lost everything."

Heiges is not alone. The legal website Avvo.com has seen a huge uptick in questions about corporate card liability since the recession hit.

"The credit card company can come after your company, the one that issued the corporate credit card, or they can come after you personally and that's where a lot of people get confused and hurt," Avvo founder and CEO Mark Britton said.

How to Protect Yourself: Before You Get the Card

Adam Levin of Credit.com told "GMA" that the warning sings that you could be held personally liable for corporate debt usually show up during the corporate card application process.

"Where the bells and whistles and red flags and flashing lights should go off is if you're the one filling out the application, and you're signing and you're giving your social security number," he said.

Here are key indicators that you may be held responsible for your corporate card balance:

If the corporate account shows up on your personal credit report.

If you are required to pay the bill yourself and then get reimbursed.

If you provided personal financial information to get the card.

How to Protect Yourself: While Using the Card

If you already use a corporate card, there are ways to find out if you could be subject to personal liability. Here are a few:

CLICK HERE to learn how to get your credit report and your credit score the right way. Check to see if the card is on the report.

Ask the "card program manager" at your company if you are personally liable for the card.

Get a copy of the contract from the credit card company and look for an individual or joint liability clause.

How to Protect Yourself: If You're Already Being Pursued for Corporate Debt

Demand Proof

If a debt collector contacts you trying to get you to pay off your company credit card, demand that they prove it is your debt.

Do this by sending a written letter within 30 days of the collection call. This is your right under the fair debt collection practices act. If your company credit card had a corporate liability arrangement, then the collector will not be able to prove you are responsible.

In your letter, also demand that the debt collector not contact you again in the future. That way, by law, they cannot contact you again, except to inform you of specific legal action they plan to take against you.

Clear Your Credit Report

If the bank or credit card company lists your corporate card debt on your credit report even though you are not liable for it, that is illegal under the fair credit reporting act.

You should dispute the presence of the account on your reports with the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Choose the "not mine" option.

If the credit card company cannot produce a document showing you agreed to have individual or joint liability for the account, the credit bureaus must remove it from your record.

This can be a thorny he said/she said process, though, so back up your argument by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates credit bureaus.

Get Your Company Involved

If your company is going out of business and will be unable to pay off its corporate credit card bill, often the company can negotiate a settlement agreement with its creditors where it pays less than the amount owed, but still pays something.

In exchange, the credit card company agrees not to pursue the debt with the company's employees. Encourage your company to try this, if you are in a position to do so.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" Web site.

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