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Five Steps to Take When a Collector Comes Calling for a Debt You Don’t Owe

9/1/2010

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If a debt collector is contacting you about a debt you know you don’t owe, explaining your case can be an uphill battle. Whether it’s a matter of mistaken identity, an honest error or identity theft, the Better Business Bureau recommends taking five steps to fight back against erroneous debt collectors.

According to a 2010 report, the FTC received 119,364 complaints about third-party and in-house debt collectors last year, up from 104,766 in 2008.  While complaints can be about any number of issues, trying to collect on a debt the consumer doesn’t owe is common. In a recent example, the FTC reached a million-dollar settlement with Credit Bureau Collection Services over accusations that the collection agency violated federal law by inaccurately reporting credit information and pressing consumers to pay debts they often did not owe.

“It can be an exhausting process to set the record straight on a debt you don’t actually owe,” said Alison Southwick, BBB spokesperson. “Because debts are often sold and resold to many different collection agencies over time, you may have to make the same case every few years when the debt trades hands again.”

If you’re receiving calls for a debt you don’t owe, it could be a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps you share the same name, or even inherited an old phone number of the person who actually owes the debt.

You could also be the victim of zombie debt—it could be that you paid the original debt off but it wasn’t recorded as paid, or the statute of limitations on the debt has expired and the debt collector is trying to get you to pay for a debt you can no longer be taken to court over.

A final common cause of being hounded for a debt you don’t owe is fraud. It could be that you have become a victim of identity theft and someone is opening up new lines of credit or buying items using your good name. Additionally, the “debt collector” calling could actually be an identity thief who is trying to get you to divulge personal financial information such as Social Security, bank and credit card numbers.

If you’re being pursued for a debt you don’t think you owe, BBB recommends taking the following five steps:

1. Request written proof of the debt. By law, a debt collection agency must provide you with a validation notice within five days of contacting you about the debt. If you would like to get verification of the debt, send a written request to the debt collector within 30 days after you receive the validation notice. This written proof can help you determine if the callers are actually identity thieves, or if you really do owe the debt. Once you have the name and contact information for the agency, confirm they are a legitimate debt collector with your BBB at www.bbb.org.  After you confirm that you don’t owe the debt, advise the debt collector you do not owe the debt and advise them to stop contacting you (see step 4). 

2. Correct any errors. After confirming you do not owe the debt, you may want to correct any incorrect submission related to the debt captured on your credit report. Contact the company that has provided the information to the reporting bureau by writing a detailed letter and include copies of pertinent documents which back your case. The FTC provides additional information on how to report errors at www.ftc.gov.

3. Weed out fraud and errors. Check your credit report with the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax and Transunion every year by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com. If you’ve been the victim of fraud or identity theft, you may also be eligible to view your reports for free.  By keeping a close eye on your credit reports, you’ll be able to more quickly identify fraudulent activity or mistakes and make corrections before the debt collector calls.  

4. Tell them to stop contacting you. According to federal law, a debt collector cannot continue to contact you—at work or home—if you tell them to stop. After confirming you do not owe the debt in question, you may cease all contact from the debt collection company by sending a letter (via certified mail) to the debt collector advising them to cease contact.  Keep a copy of the letter and the return receipt for verification purposes.  Any further contact to you from the debt collector except to advise you there will be no further contact, or to inform you that the agency is filing legal action, is a violation of the FDCPA. 

5. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.  Familiarize yourself with the consumer protections provided under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  Included are rules that debt collectors may not make false or deceptive claims and must investigate the validity of a dispute over a debt. If a debt collector violates the law, report them to the FTC—the federal government’s agency overseeing fair debt collection practices. You should also file a complaint with your BBB at www.bbb.org

For more information on taking control of your debt and managing credit effectively, check out BBB’s Managing Credit – Made Simpler.

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