14 June 2011
Let's say you've just come home from a long day at work. Dinner's in the oven and you're working through a particularly difficult math problem with one of your children. Life's just chugging along, the way it should be.
The phone rings and your child answers it. "There's a guy who says you owe them money," the little one calls out to you as you stir the pasta.
Mr. Collector comes out of the gate roaring, so to speak. A demand is made for money you don't have, on a debt you don't owe, to a creditor you've never dealt with. You mentally scroll through your monthly bills and can't figure out what this guy is talking about. You politely inform him that you don't owe any money, but he's insistent.
He reads your name back to you, and you confirm that he's on the line with the right person. Again, you deny you owe the money.
Mr. Collector then informs you that he'll have to kick this up a notch, and that he'll be continuing collection efforts against you.
Dismayed, you tell him not to call again before hanging up.
That's just the beginning of a series of phone calls and letters that leaves you anxious and confused.
What's the deal?
With over 307 million people in the United States there's a good chance that you share a name with at least one other person. Add to that the fact that so many people are in over their heads debt-wise, and it's not a leap of logic to presume that someone who shares your name may be past due on a debt.
There's also the identity theft problem that's running rampant.
Identity theft was the top consumer complaint lodged with the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 with 250,854 such cases. That doesn't include people who handled their cases privately or through lawyers. So there's also a chance that you've been the victim of identity theft.
Either way, there are a few steps you need to take in order to get your life back on track.
Send A Cease And Desist Letter. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a debt collector can contact you by phone or letter unless you tell him or her to stop. Most people don't know that the only way to invoke that right is to make a demand in writing.
My best tip is to send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested and keep a copy of the letter for your files. In addition, fax a copy of the letter to the debt collection agency immediately.
Once the letter is received, calls must stop.
Demand Verification. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act also gives you the right to demand verification of the debt in question, including a copy of the application that was signed when the account was opened. You'll want to look at that application carefully to check out the signature; if it's not yours then there's a tip-off that it isn't your debt. Once again, send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested and keep a copy of the letter for your files. In addition, fax a copy of the letter to the debt collection agency immediately.
If It's Not Your Debt, Dispute It. If it's not your debt, send a dispute to the collection agency in writing. Once received, the calls must stop (if they haven't already). In addition, the debt collection agency has to update the way they report the bill on your credit report (if they are doing so) to note that you're disputing the debt. Again, send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested and keep a copy of the letter for your files. In addition, fax a copy of the letter to the debt collection agency just to be sure.
Get Copies Of Your Credit Reports. You want to get copies of your credit reports from all three major credit reporting agencies - Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. One isn't good enough because they don't all have the same data all the time. If the debt is showing up on your credit report and it isn't yours then you're going to want to demand an investigation using the Fair Credit Reporting Act. You can also insert a statement on your credit reports to alert other possible creditors about the problem.
In Case Of Identity Theft, Take Action Immediately. In the 1955 Woody Woodpecker cartoon Bunco Busters the narrator says, "If Woody had gone straight to the police, this would never have happened." This message is important if you think you've been the victim of identity theft. You want to go to the police and file a report to document your claim, and do so quickly. You also want to put a fraud alert on your credit reports and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. These steps will help document your claim, give you extra ammunition if you need it, and help prevent further theft.
These steps will help lay the groundwork for you to work through your rights and protect yourself. Your lawyer (because doing this without professional help is about as smart as undertaking brain surgery with a pocket knife and a hand held mirror) is going to want to have as much of this information as possible to help you untangle the unfortunate and all-too-common mess that arises when the wrong people are the subject of collection efforts.
Image credit: MrsMinifig/Flickr
Jay S. Fleischman is a lawyer who helps victims of unfair debt collection