How Do I Know If a Debt is Really Mine?

Figuring out which debts are actually yours when collectors call.

I’m trying to get my finances back in order but it seems like I get new collection letters every week from different companies that are unknown to me. I have a credit tracker but it doesn’t seem to have all my debt listed. I’m afraid of blindly paying bills I get in the mail and getting scammed. Is there a way to find out all my bills as well as be sure I’m paying the right people?

Brent
Springhill, FL

An expert answer from April Lewis-Parks

Debt collection letters flood your inbox

It’s not uncommon for collectors to contact the wrong person when it comes to seeking payment on a charged-off debt. Similar names and aliases mean you can get flagged as the holder of a debt that really isn’t yours. It’s up to you to have the due diligence to check your accounts and compare them to the debts listed on your credit report to ensure you don’t wind up paying off someone else’s defaulted credit card or store account.
Always keep in mind that the creditor and the credit bureau only have 30 days from the date you submitted a dispute about a debt that you believe is not yours to respond. That’s by law, according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If the account information can’t be verified as yours OR even if the bureau and the creditor simply don’t respond then you’re legally entitled to have that item removed from your credit report.

At that point, the collector attempting to get you to pay has no recourse but to stop calling. Again, these rights are protected by law – in this case, the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA). Once you tell a collector that a debt is not yours and you don’t wish to be contacted again, they must stop calling or face penalties with the FTC and even a civil suit if they’re really intent on continuing to hassle you and you want to pursue it in court.

Make sure to carefully document dates when you contact any creditor, as well as the credit bureaus. Additionally, using certified and registered mail for written communication creates a paper trail that includes the date an organization or company received a letter from you. This way, if you have to show a violation of the FDCPA later, you’ll be able to present hard evidence that the collector was informed on a certain date.

And if it ends up that the debt really is yours and needs to be paid, make sure to consider your options carefully. If you can’t afford to pay everything that’s owed on that debt to the collector all at once and they say they won’t accept anything accept payment in-full, you may still have options. Debts in collections may still be able to be included in a debt management program even if it’s with a third-party collector. It may be worth it to talk to a credit counselor to see if they can negotiate on your behalf to include that debt in a debt management program.