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5 steps to dispute a debt that's not yours

Mix-ups are common, but settle the issue instead of avoiding it

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A debt collector mixes you up with a deadbeat: at best, it's annoying, at worst, it can hurt your credit.

5 steps for when you're tagged with someone else's debt

A mix-up can happen easily: An employee at a debt collection company makes a typo or tracks down a debtor whose name is similar to yours, and suddenly a collector is harassing you for a debt that's not yours. With thousands of debt collection companies operating across the country, and debt buyers buying up bundles of old accounts at cheap rates, these mix-ups are fairly common -- and it's a bad idea to ignore them. If you've been tagged with someone else's debt, here are five steps to take:

1. Pick up the phone. By simply taking the phone calls, Leslie Welch, a country radio announcer in Houston, has avoided trouble with various collectors who have called over the years about the student loans, car payments and mortgage of a woman who shares her name, but not her habit of paying bills on time. "Just be nice to the people on the phone," Welch says. "If you don't, the next step might be a letter from a lawyer, so it's better to just clear it up over the phone."The general counsel for the debt collection trade association ACA International, Valerie Hayes, agrees: "The best thing you can do is explain the situation and tell them, 'It isn't me.'"

2. Send a letter to the debt collector. "It's important that you respond, and old-fashioned snail mail is the best way to do it," says Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, a national debt counseling firm. "That way, you stay in control, you can keep a copy and you have the dispute in writing." Keep the letter short, Williams recommends: "Just write simple statements, such as 'I've never lived at that address,' or 'I've never used the services of Dr. Smith,' or 'I've never had that type of credit card.'" Also ask for verification. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector is required to send you a written "validation notice" that includes the name of the original creditor. Send the letter by certified mail, experts recommend.

3. Check your credit report for errors. If you're getting phone calls or letters about someone else's debt, the erroneous information could end up on your credit report. "I think it's a major problem," says Linda Sherry, national priorities director for Consumer Action. Debt collectors "don't have to give a credit reporting agency your Social Security number to put negative information on your credit report. It's really disturbing," she says. If you are dealing with a case of mistaken identity or fraud, Sherry recommends that you either call AnnualCreditReport.com at (877) 322-8228 to order your free annual credit report or pull it up online. Sherry warns that if you view your credit report online, you might unwittingly "sign" an arbitration agreement that could restrict your ability to file a lawsuit right away. If you see incorrect information, follow the dispute process outlined on your credit report.

[Debt collectors] don't have to give a credit reporting agency your Social Security number to put negative information on your credit report. It's really disturbing.

-- Linda Sherry    
Consumer Action    

4. If the problem persists, know your rights and options. In many cases, experts say, you can resolve the situation by convincing the debt collector that they have the wrong person. But sometimes the problem can persist, and you need to know your rights. According to the Federal Trade Commission, a debt collector cannot harass you, curse at you, lie to you, threaten to arrest you or keep contacting you after you've sent a letter disputing the debt (see a sample debt dispute letter). If you're being harassed or the debt collector is violating the FDCPA in any other way, experts say you can file a complaint at www.ftc.gov, report the problem to your state attorney general's office and even find a consumer attorney. "There are hundreds of attorneys across the country who want to represent consumers on a contingency basis," says Robert Hobbs, who specializes in debt collection issues for the National Consumer Law Center. "The consumer doesn't pay -- the debt collector pays if the consumer wins. That's avery powerful tool."

5. Never pay someone else's debt. There are unscrupulous debt collectors who will try to harangue you into paying someone else's debt -- in fact, the FTC in March 2010 fined a large debt collector $1 million partly for doing exactly that. No matter how small the amount or how tempted you are, experts say you should not pay a debt that's not yours. "If you make a payment, even if it's not your debt, you basically signify that it is yours, and then it can be reported on your credit report," says Howard Dvorkin, a certified public accountant and CEO of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. "Whether it's $20 or $20,000, it's still going to show up as a negative item on your credit report, and you can unintentionally destroy your credit."

If you follow these steps, you'll have a good chance of resolving a case of mistaken identity by a debt collector with your sanity -- and your credit score -- intact.

See related: Sample letter disputing debt, Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, I'm not a deadbeat, but I play one on my cell phone, Debt collection sample letters, The ugly side of debt collection, Don't fall prey to aggressive debt collection tactics

Published: June 21, 2010


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