ESCANABA - If a debt collector is contacting you about a debt you know you don't owe, explaining your case can be an uphill battle. Whether it's a case of mistaken identity, an honest error or identity theft, here are five steps to fight back.
If you're receiving calls for a debt you don't owe, it could be a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps you share the same name, or even inherited an old phone number of the person who actually owes the debt. You could also be the victim of zombie debt, which is where you paid the original debt off but it wasn't recorded as paid or the statute of limitations on the debt has expired and the debt collector is trying to get you to pay for a debt you can no longer be taken to court over.
A final common cause of being hounded for a debt you don't owe is fraud. You could be a victim of identity theft where someone has opened up lines of credit in your name or the "debt collector" could actually be an identity thief trying to get you to divulge personal financial information.
If you're being pursued for a debt you don't think you owe,taking the following five steps is recommended:
1. Request written proof of the debt. By law, a debt collection agency must provide you with a validation notice within five days of contacting you about the debt. If you would like to get verification of the debt, send a written request to the debt collector within 30 days of receiving the validation notice. This written proof can help you determine if the callers are actually identity thieves, or if you really do owe the debt. Once you have the name and contact information for the agency, confirm they are a legitimate debt collector with your local Better Business Bureau or at www.bbb.org.
2. Correct any errors. After confirming you do not owe the debt, you may want to correct any incorrect submission related to the debt captured on your credit report. Contact the company that has provided the information to the reporting bureau by writing a detailed letter and include copies of pertinent documents which back your case. The FTC provides additional information on how to report errors at www.ftc.gov.
3. Weed out fraud and errors. Check your credit report with the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax and Transunion every year by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com. If you've been the victim of fraud or identity theft, you may also be eligible to view your reports for free. By keeping a close eye on your credit reports, you'll be able to more quickly identify fraudulent activity or mistakes and make corrections before the debt collector calls.
4. Tell them to stop contacting you. According to federal law, a debt collector cannot continue to contact you - at work or home - if you tell them to stop. After confirming you do not owe the debt in question, you may cease all contact from the debt collection company by sending a letter (via certified mail) to the debt collector advising them to cease contact. Keep a copy of the letter and the return receipt for verification purposes. Any further contact to you from the debt collector except to advise you there will be no further contact, or to inform you that the agency is filing legal action, is a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
5. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Familiarize yourself with the consumer protections provided under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Included are rules that debt collectors may not make false or deceptive claims and must investigate the validity of a dispute over a debt. If a debt collector violates the law, report them to the FTC, which oversees fair debt collection practices. You can also report them to the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org and/or the Attorney General at www.michigan.gov/ag.
Debt collectors and identity thieves posing as debt collectors may attempt to use high pressure techniques to get you to send money right away. Some debt collectors may offer you a "one time deal" reducing the debt owed by 10 percent, 25 percent or even 50 percent if you pay right away. If you feel this is a fraudulent debt, follow the five steps above before paying, even if you are offered a "deal" to settle the debt.
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Gary Ballweg is sheriff of Delta County.