Imagine going to a restaurant, enjoying a modest meal, and dutifully paying your bill, while across the way other diners seem oddly carefree about their tab. You don't think much of it - why should you? - until one day you get stuck with their bill, too, and a lot more like it.
That's the kind of story Carolyn Longo has to tell - about an out-of-the-blue financial mess that isn't even her own.
Her nightmare began in November on her 60th birthday, timing that first made Longo suspect a prank: A caller from Chase Bank demanded she pay about $14,000 on a credit card she didn't know existed.
Since then, Longo has been fighting back while trying to unravel the mess. But after watching her credit score plunge more than 100 points, she offered to share her story to help others through the thicket of troubles that can arise when people with credit cards get divorced - the apparent cause, two decades after the fact, of Longo's credit woes.
In 1993, Longo split with her husband. She moved from the East Oak Lane home they shared, near his job at La Salle University. In exchange for her equity in the house, he assumed responsibility for a list of obligations, including more than a dozen credit cards.
All was well and good, as far as Longo knew. She dropped her married name and eventually landed where she is today: living in Glenside, working as a cardiologist's office manager, and counting blessings that include "three incredible kids."
Then her ex-husband died in September, and the past came back to bite. The Chase card was in her married name, Carolyn Blumenthal. Bills were going to her old East Oak Lane address, where her ex-husband still lived. And somebody was paying them until his death.
Longo says Chase has told her its records go back only five years. But she says she believes the card was first issued to her in the 1980s by Chemical Bank, which merged with the old Chase Manhattan in 1995.
At the time of the divorce, Longo's ex-husband agreed to pay the $6,781 owed on that card, along with other debts. But for reasons lost to time and death, nobody ever closed the account.
Was it ever paid off? Longo can't tell. But as recently as 2009, the balance was below $4,000. Nor is there, so far, clear evidence of who built up the charges, which include numerous cash advances - each with a $10 fee - from area bank machines.
A lawyer representing her ex-husband's estate did not return my calls. But in a letter to Longo, he said that the estate wasn't liable, and that the widow "denies any use of this account for any reason."
Citing privacy concerns, Chase spokesman Steve O'Halloran would not discuss the case. But Chase has repeatedly made clear to Longo - including in dozens of collection calls - that it expects her to pay the $14,000 or suffer the consequences of a bad-debt write-off.
"We are not a party to or bound by divorce decrees," O'Halloran wrote via e-mail. "A cardholder would need to make us aware of any necessary changes."
What about a cardholder unaware an account still existed? Longo says she never saw the account on a credit report, though she has not kept copies and concedes she might have overlooked a non-delinquent Chase account. She has three others of her own, including a mortgage and credit card.
Longo's lawyer, Paul Masciantonio, is trying to hold her ex responsible for the debt via his estate. "She didn't know anything about this credit card for 20 years, and it popped back up after he died," he says.
Meanwhile, Masciantonio echoes lessons offered by credit experts such as Philadelphia lawyer Jim Francis.
One is to insist on tighter divorce agreements spelling out that accounts be closed - and to follow up by demanding written confirmation. At Chase, O'Halloran says either party can shut down a joint account because both are liable for charges.
Another is always to be mindful of your credit, which you can do by getting free annual reports from www.annualcreditreport.com.
For nearly two decades, Chase was presumably reporting credit information on an account with Longo's birth date and Social Security number tied to an old, unused name and address.
If it weren't on her old reports, Francis says, it would be evidence the bank didn't consider her liable. Right now, that would be good information to know.