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

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 isn’t yours. You can end up dealing with the stress and harassment of collection calls for someone else’s debt.

Before you agree to pay, there are several steps you can take to verify if a debt is really yours to pay. If it’s not, then you have every right to tell the collector to stop contacting you. Here are steps you need to take

Step 1: Get notice

By law, a collector must send you a “Notice of Debt” letter within 30 days of their first contact with you. This letter must state the name of the company seeking payment and the amount you owe.

When a collector calls you, ask them if this notice has been sent. Let them know that you will not discuss the debt further until you receive the letter and have an opportunity to verify the debt is yours.

Step 2: Check your credit report

Once you receive the Notice of Debt you can compare it to your own records—namely, your credit report.

Download your credit reports for free from annualcreditreport.com. Currently, you can download your credit reports for free once per week through April 20, 2022.

Once you have your reports, look for the creditor name and account that matches the information in the Notice of Debt. If you don’t see that information, then you’re one step closer to confirming that the debt may not be yours.

Don’t wait to do this step. You have 30 days from when you receive the Notice of Debt to dispute it or request more information.

Step 3: Ask for validation

Next, you want to go back to the collector to request debt validation. This is another letter where the collector must provide further proof of the debt. They must show that they legally own the debt or have the right to collect on behalf of the original creditor.

Make sure to request the original creditor’s name and address, so you can contact them to confirm that the account got sold to the collector. They should also provide documentation from the original creditor.

If they cannot provide this information, then they have no legal right to collect the debt.

Step 4: Cease and desist

If the collector cannot verify the debt, then the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act clearly states you have a right to request they cease all contact. Simply send them a letter in writing that states you no longer wish to be contacted about this debt.

They must cease all contact. Their only recourse would be to try and sue you in civil court, but without the ability to verify the debt, it’s unlikely that they would incur the cost of a lawsuit. If they tried, you can simply answer the court summons with the proof you already have showing that the debt is not yours to pay.

What to do if a debt that’s not yours appears on your credit report

Some collectors may try and get a debt collection account on your credit report even if it’s not yours to pay. Collection accounts will appear in the public records section of your credit report.

If a collector reports an account that is not yours, simply go through the steps above. Once you reach the step where the collector fails to verify the debt fully, you can provide that information to the credit bureaus. You can dispute the item and have the collection account removed from your credit report.

These rights are protected by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If the account information can’t be verified then you’re legally entitled to have that item removed from your credit report.

What to do if the debt really is yours

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 all at once and they say they won’t accept anything except payment-in-full, you may still have options.

For example, 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.