Mystery debt: A collector's goof becomes your recurring problem

Prepare for a paperwork hassle if a collection mistake has your name on it

The Credit Guy columnist Todd Ossenfort
Todd Ossenfort has been chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling since 1998. He writes our weekly "The Credit Guy" column, answering reader questions about credit counseling and debt issues.

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Question for the expert

Dear Credit Guy,
I was contacted by a collection agency a few months ago claiming I owe a debt from several years ago that I don't recall. It was reported on my credit reports as a collection, but I disputed it and all three bureaus removed it. Now they're once again calling me about this debt. Should I just ignore them? Is there anything else they can do that I should be worried about? -- James

Answer for the expert

Dear James,
The collection agency is not going to stop contacting you as long as it believes the debt belongs to you. What you need to do is convince the collectors they have the wrong person, which can unfortunately be easier said than done. The key when communicating with collectors is to remain calm and polite. Kill them with kindness. They talk with many people every day and no one is happy to hear from a debt collector. As a result, many collectors can become difficult if you get upset or rude during the conversation.

The bottom line is you don't believe the debt is yours and the collector does. What you need to do is request that the collector send you verification of the debt. You are entitled to this under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Send written notice to the collector that you are disputing the validity of the debt. If you have not already been given the original creditor information for this debt, you may request that in your letter, called a verification of debt letter. Be sure to send all written correspondence certified mail with a return receipt request so you have proof that it was received and when. Once the collector receives your written notice, collection activity must stop until that information is provided.

Should you receive the information and it turns out the debt does belong to you, make arrangements for payment. Should the debt truly not be yours, the collector will be unable to verify that it is owed by you. Therefore, you should not hear from the collector again regarding the debt. However, the phone calls may not end there. Many times collectors sell debts to each other and another collection agency may end up with a debt attached to your name and the calls could begin again.

To lessen the chances that the debt continues to be tied to your name, request that the collector give you all the identifying information for the debt -- name, address, Social Security number, etc. It could be that part of the identifying information for the account was entered wrong, and that is how your name came to be associated with a debt that is not yours. In other words, the address may be yours, but the Social Security number is not, or vice versa. Request that your name and information be removed from the debt so you don't continue to receive collection attempts.

For your own protection, I suggest you keep good records of your phone calls and paperwork from the current collection agency regarding this debt. Even if you request that your information be removed, you could still be contacted regarding this debt again in the future. Be sure to let any other companies that call know you have been contacted previously, and the debt could not be verified as yours. Offer to send the collector copies of everything you have and the process should be be simpler and eventually end all together.

Finally, keep checking your credit reports and dispute the debt should it show up on your reports again.

Take care of your credit!

See related: Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Debt collection sample letters, The ugly side of debt collection, 11 tips for dealing with debt collection

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Updated: 11-21-2017