Legal Aid can help with debt, car repossession, and identity theft

By Tonya Sams, Legal Aid Society of Cleveland

Unpaid debt can be a huge burden that creates a constant cycle of worry and fear. 

Do you know what to do if you are sued by a debt collector, if your car is repossessed, or if you are a victim of identity theft? Legal Aid has answers.

Car Repossession 

Your car can be repossessed by the lender if you fail to make a payment (also known as going into default). The lender can even take your car away without your knowledge – whether it is parked in your driveway, a parking lot, or on the street. 

One thing that a lender cannot do while repossessing your car is “breach the peace.” This means the lender cannot threaten or use physical force to retrieve the car or take your car from your closed garage without permission. If there is a breach of peace, you should call the police. Do not threaten or attempt to stop the repossession of your car. 

Any personal items in the car must be returned to you. It is important to call the lender to find out where to get your items, but beware – there may be a small storage fee from the lender. 

It is important to remember to write down the date in which your car was repossessed and save all notices that you receive from the lender. If the lender fails to notify you during the repossession process, makes a mistake, or gives you incorrect information, that can be used in your defense if you are sued.

The lender must notify you within five business days to explain why the car was repossessed and the steps you need to take to get it back. If you cannot pay to get the car back at that time, the lender must notify you if they are selling the car. You will usually receive a notice at least ten days before the sale of the car. Even if the car is sold for less than what you owed, the lender can take you to court for something called “deficiency.” 

Legal Aid can help if you have been sued to collect the deficiency

Legal Aid and the Cuyahoga County Court of Common have created a Consumer Debt Defense Program, which is a free program that helps people who are being sued because of an unpaid debt. 

For more information, call the Court Resource Center at (216) 443-8204 or email

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office can also help if you have any issues regarding the process in which your car was repossessed. You can file a complaint at its website, 

What happens if you are a victim of identity theft?

Legal Aid can also help if your personal information (such as your name, social security number, or credit card information) has been stolen. Stolen information can be used to make purchases, open new lines of credit, create new utility accounts, or receive medical care. It can also be used to steal tax refunds – and, the thief can use your name if arrested.

If you are a victim of identity theft:;

  • Contact the companies that were affected and close accounts that were open in your name.
  • Go to to create a fraud alert through the credit bureaus and request a copy of your credit report.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission to inform them of the theft. 
  • Contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section.
  • File a report with your local police department.
  • Go to to find out how to correct your credit report.
  • Contact the credit bureaus to add a fraud alert or credit freeze.

It may be necessary to contact the Social Security Administration, a lawyer (to clear criminal charges in your name, if there are any), and/or debt collectors (so you will not have to pay debts that you are not responsible for). You may also have to get government-issued IDs replaced.

If you need help regarding debt, car possession or identity theft, call Legal Aid at (216) 687-1900 or seek help 24/7 at  

Tonya Sams is the Development and Communications Assistant at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

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