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Purchaser of stolen property must return it to the owner

April 30, 2011 at midnight
Updated April 29, 2011 at 11:30 p.m.


By Richard Alderman

I bought a computer on Craigslist. It turns out that the computer was stolen and the owner now wants it back. What are my rights? Does the owner have to give me back the money I paid?

As far as the law is concerned, the owner of stolen property is entitled to its return. The thief had no right to the property and neither does anyone who buys it. Because you have no right to the property, you must return it to the owner, and the owner has no obligation to give you anything in return.

Your rights are against the person who sold you the property. Assuming the person you bought the property from was the thief, you are probably out of luck.

Buying property from an individual, whether it is online, at a garage sale, or through the want ads, is generally a good way to get a deal. Be careful, however, if the deal seems too good to be true, or the circumstances seem unusual. You buy at your own risk when it comes to stolen goods.

My boyfriend moved in with me in September. In March we broke up. I gave him some of his things back, some I threw away and some I kept. His mother is going to take me to small claims court for theft, claiming all his belongings were items she bought for him. She says she has receipts. Does she have a case?

In my opinion, the mother does not have a case, but the son does. First, even if the mother paid for things, once she gave them to her son, they belong to the son. You had no right, however, to keep or destroy his property. If he wants to pursue a claim against you in small claims court for the value of property you kept or destroyed, my opinion is he has a good legal argument. I should add that his claim will be for what the property was worth, not what it cost.

I fell in a local bar. All my friends saw that I fell and was hurt. The bar says it is not responsible. Can I take them to small claims court?

First, just because you fell does not mean the bar has any liability. It is responsible if its negligence caused the fall, but not simply because it owns the property. For example, if you tripped over your own feet and fell, the bar has no liability.

On the other hand, if there was a spilled drink it did not clean up in a reasonable period of time and that caused the fall, it would be considered "negligent," and responsible. I suggest you think about the cause of the fall, and if you believe it was their fault, ask for compensation for your medical expenses. If they do not pay, small claims court may be the best place to get the matter resolved.

I just got a notice from the IRS that one of my debts was reported and I owe money. How can my tax refund be garnished for a credit card debt?

Your tax refund is not being garnished. You owe the IRS income taxes. When a creditor "writes-off" a debt, the write-off is reported to the IRS and is considered income to the debtor. There are rules regarding whether income taxes owed on this type of debt, based on your financial situation. I suggest you review the IRS website regarding "forgiveness of debt" income, and then pay any taxes you owe.

I just received a notice from a debt collector that it owns a debt of mine from 15 years ago. Do I still owe this money? What can happen to me now?

A debt remains your obligation forever unless it is discharged in bankruptcy. The debt collector has the right to try to collect, and can ask you to pay. It stays on your credit report, however, for only seven years.

Also, under what is called the "statute of limitations," any lawsuit to enforce the debt must be filed within four years. In other words, there is not much that can be done at this point to legally force you to pay. If you want to stop all further communication from the debt collector, send them a cease and desist letter, demanding they stop.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at www.peopleslawyer.net.

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