The following is presented for informational purposes only. Consult with a legal professional for questions specific to your situation.
There can be a number of reasons why a debt collector may come after you for a debt that isn’t yours. Maybe someone else opened an account in your name, or maybe you’re being charged for a debt that belongs to an ex. Sometimes, paid debts are accidentally sent to a collector.
Some debt collectors may even intentionally mislead you in the hopes that you’ll be scared into paying without verifying that their claims are accurate.
Whatever the reason, there are several things you need to do when you’re told you owe a debt that isn’t yours.
Before agreeing to pay anything, confirm that the debt is actually yours. The letter may look legitimate, but that doesn’t mean the debt is. Or, maybe the debt collector has resurrected an old debt, one that you no longer owe, in the hopes that you’ll pay.
Ask the debt collector to provide proof of the debt. If you respond to the collector’s initial written notice of debt with a written dispute within 30 days, you have a right to receive written proof of the debt in question. Any legitimate debt collector should comply without much fuss. This will also halt any collection activity until you’ve received verification of the debt’s legitimacy. Ask to see an account summary of the debt they’re asking you to pay along with any documentation that goes with it. If the debt isn’t really yours, this should be enough to end the matter.
It’s also a good idea to pull a copy of your credit report and see if the debt in question is listed. Credit reporting is never 100 percent perfect, so there’s a chance that a valid debt may not appear on your report, but it’s a relatively slim one.
2. Confirm payment
If the debt collector is trying to resurrect an old debt that you’ve already paid, show proof of payment. This could include your cancelled checks or a copy of your bank statement showing the payment. You can also contact the original creditor yourself and ask for a copy of your account statement. This will show that you’ve already paid the debt.
Your credit report may also be helpful here, as it should show the account as paid in full (presuming you paid it off within the past seven years). Provide whatever evidence you’ve got to the debt collector and confirm that the matter is closed.
3. Confirm authorization
Even if you really do owe the money, it’s possible that the creditor never actually hired this particular debt collector. If you have doubts about who should be collecting, contact the original creditor to see where the debt has gone. It may have been sold or the creditor may have just hired a collector to assist with the account. Either way, they should be able to tell you who is managing your debt and where to direct any payments or communications.
4. Exercise your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
If the debt that the collector is trying to collect was never actually yours to begin with, you will need to fight it. Fortunately, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provides a number of powerful protections for just such an occasion – but that’s only if you exercise those protections.
Send your written dispute in time
Time is of the utmost importance, so don’t ignore any letter from a debt collector. If you don’t dispute it within 30 days, the debt collector has the right to assume the debt is valid and continue collection attempts. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s better if you can resolve things within that 30 day window. Respond quickly and be sure to keep a record of all communications between yourself and collector.
They will then have 30 days to respond to your dispute, which will give you some time to confirm their information with the creditor. Send your response via certified mail with return receipt requested. This will give you proof that they received your written request.
Missed the 30 day window? Send your written dispute anyway. Be sure to include any and all evidence in your dispute. The collection agency won’t have to verify the debt and can continue their collection attempts, but should stop once they’ve been presented with adequate evidence that the debt is not owed. A debt collector cannot attempt to collect a debt they know is not valid.
Send a cease letter
If you don’t owe the debt, but the collection agency continues to attempt to collect, you can send a letter demanding that they cease collection attempts, including calls and letters. This letter should be sent by certified mail (so you have proof it was received) and include:
- Your name and address
- The account number
- A request to not contact you about the referenced debt, in compliance with Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
You may also want to submit a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC.gov) and your state’s Attorney General office.
Keep in mind, if the debt collector disagrees and believes that the debt is valid, they may ultimately decide to sue for the money. In that case you should receive communication about any legal action being taken against you. Don’t ignore this! Just because you’re certain that the debt isn’t valid doesn’t mean the situation is necessarily over. If you’re summoned to court, you’ll want to go to plead your side – otherwise, the collector may win a judgment against you in your absence. In this situation, you may want to consider connecting with an attorney for more specific advice.
Read more: Why You Can't Afford to Ignore Unpaid Debts
If it’s a case of identity theft, you will need to contact your creditors and the credit reporting agencies. Put a fraud alert on your credit report and request a copy of your report from all agencies to look for other possible debts that are not yours. Then, contact the FTC and fill out an ID theft complaint and affidavit form on their website. Make sure you print this out. In addition, you will need to file a police report and send copies of your police report and the ID theft complaint to the credit reporting agencies.
If a debt collector is trying to collect a debt that isn’t yours, don’t ignore it. It may take a little work to clear your name, but the faster you act, the easier it’ll be.