Debt collectors have the responsibility of collecting on past-due accounts, and they have many tactics they can use to do so, including calling, sending letters, listing the debt on your credit report, and suing. These things are tough enough to deal with when the debt is yours, but it's even worse when it's not.
The inaccurate debt collection may have resulted from someone opening an account in your name and failing to pay the bill, and sometimes paid debts are accidentally sent to collections. In some cases, unscrupulous debt collectors create fake debts hoping that consumers will be frightened into paying without ever questioning whether the debt is even real. If you have any doubts about whether a debt belongs to you, it's important to follow the right steps.
Determine Whether the Debt Is Yours
Don't assume that because the collection seems strange and you don't remember having an account with that creditor that the debt collection isn't yours. There's always the possibility that a bill slipped through the cracks or that you simply don't recognize the name of the original creditor. For example, a loan may have been sold to a different servicer, or, as with retail credit cards, the bank issuing a credit card has a different name than the store you signed up for the credit card with.
Reporting Limit and Statue of Limitations
The amount of effort you put into disputing the debt depends on how much action the debt collector can take against you for the debt based on the credit reporting time limit and the statute of limitations for your state. The credit reporting time limit is the maximum amount of time a debt can be reported to the credit bureaus, and it's seven years from the last date of delinquency for most accounts. In 2022, for example, debt collectors can't report debts from 2012. The statute of limitations is the time that a debt is legally enforceable. It's much less likely that a collector will sue you once a debt is outside the statute of limitations, but in this case, it wouldn't matter because the debt isn't yours.
Dispute the Debt
You have the right to request proof of any debts that collection agencies ask you to pay. Once you've requested the proof, the debt collector has to stop collection efforts until it can show that you owe the debt and that the collector is within its rights to collect the debt. Until they prove it, you shouldn't receive any calls, letters, credit bureau updates, or lawsuits.
You can dispute a debt with the debt collector by sending what's known as a "debt validation letter," which simply states that you won't believe that the debt is yours and that the debt collector should send proof of the debt to you. Send your letter via certified mail so you'll have proof of when it was sent and received.
Check Your Credit Report
It's one thing to suffer credit damage for collection accounts that are yours; it's unacceptable to have credit problems for collection accounts that don't belong to you. If debt collectors are contacting you about a debt, there's a good chance the debt has been reported to the credit bureaus. Get a copy of your credit report from all three major credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion, Equifax—and verify whether the collection account has been reported. You must check all three because some collection agencies report to all three bureaus while others report to only one or two. If you find a debt, dispute it with the credit bureaus.
Collection accounts can hurt your credit score, keep you from being approved for credit cards and loans, and cause you to pay higher interest rates or security deposits. You have the right to an accurate credit report, which means you can dispute collection accounts that don't belong to you. Write a letter to each of the credit bureaus that lists the inaccurate debt collection on your credit report. Explain that the account doesn't belong to you and provide copies of any proof you have that supports your claim.
Don't Ignore the Debt
Out of sight, out of mind isn't necessarily a good strategy for dealing with debt collections, even collections that aren't yours. If the debt isn't on your credit report, outside the credit reporting time limit, or outside the statute of limitations, you have less to worry about. Even when all of these are true, you can't take for granted that the debt collector won't re-age the debt and add it to your credit report. They also may file a lawsuit anyway, hoping that you won't show up to court, so they can win an automatic judgment against you.
You can stop a debt collector from calling you with a simple cease and desist letter. In the letter, you only have to request that the debt collector stop contacting you regarding the debt. Once the debt collector receives your letter, they can only contact you once more to let you know what action, if any, the collector will take next. After that, it's against the law for that collector to contact you about that debt. Send your letter via certified mail.
Asking the debt collector to stop calling you doesn't stop it from using other collection tactics, like filing a lawsuit or listing the debt on your credit report. It's best to let the collector know that the debt isn't yours, provide proof of any payments you made, or request validation from the collector.
When Debt Collectors Misbehave
You may be able to sue a collector that continues to collect a debt after you've followed all the proper steps for disputing the debt and requesting validation. An attorney who is experienced in handling debt collection cases will be able to tell you whether you have a valid lawsuit and help you proceed with court filings. You should also get an attorney involved if the collection agency sues you. Even though the debt isn't yours, you want to have the best legal defense possible.
Get the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) involved if the debt collector or credit bureaus aren't responding properly. For example, if the debt collector continues to collect from you after failing to respond to your debt validation letter, or if the credit bureau continues to list the debt on your credit report after you've disputed it. You can submit a complaint on the CFPB website.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What can you do if a medical bill is wrongfully sent to collections?
If a medical bill is sent to collections in error, you can dispute it by sending a debt validation letter to the debt collector. Then, contact the three major credit bureaus to dispute the account on your credit report. However, don't make the mistake of assuming that medical debt can't affect your credit score. Although the latest scoring models (FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0) weigh other types of debt more heavily, medical debt can still lower your credit score.
How can you tell whether a collections letter is fake?
A legitimate debt collector should be able to provide you with the name of the original creditor or tell you how to get that information. It should also be able to provide verification of the debt. Beware any supposed debt collectors who claim to be government officials, ask for sensitive information like your Social Security number, threaten you with jail time, or say that they will reveal your debt to your employer or contacts.