debt

Don't fall for phony debt collector

Steve BucciQuestionDear Debt Adviser,
A hospital billed me and I paid the bill; now a debt collection company is calling me saying I owe them the money that I already paid the hospital directly. How can I prove to them that I don't owe this debt and for them not to tarnish my credit score? I am also worried that they are going to turn around and start asking for the money again, or a new agency will appear asking for this nonexistent debt to be settled.
-- Audrey

AnswerDear Audrey,
I recently received an e-mail from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, instructing me to contact Fred Grant at the Zenith Bank of Nigeria to collect the $8.2 million that was due me. In my case, I was pretty sure that this was a scam, so I didn't plan to give Mr. Grant my banking information so he could deposit the money in my account. The contact you have received from a company that claims it is a debt collection company may or may not be legitimate. Before you send anything to someone who you don't know, I'd want you to be sure they are on the level.

Americans can be so consumed with having a good credit rating that they can be easy to threaten with just a phone call or a letter. The combination of this credit phobia along with feeling vulnerable after an illness can easily put you off balance. Rather than feeling defensive about this matter, I suggest you get offensive and demand to know who these people are, what authority they have to contact you and then ask them to prove that you owe the money.

Debt Adviser's quick tips
  • Ask for proof of the debt.
  • Try to work with the hospital.
  • Check your credit report for free.

A legitimate collection agency must send you proof that the debt is yours and owed once you ask for it. Furthermore, while they are proving that you owe the debt, they must stop all attempts to collect the debt until they do so. Once you have that information, you can determine whether the collection agency is a crook, has contacted the wrong person or is attempting to collect for a bill that you have already paid.

Hospital bills can seem impossible to decipher. My experience is that not only do they frequently contain charges for providers or procedures that are unrecognizable, but that they are also prone to error. By requesting proof of the debt from the collector, you will be assured that the debt in question is one and the same as what you paid to the hospital. If the bill has already been paid, send the collection agency a copy of the canceled check made out to the hospital, the credit card statement that lists the transaction or the money order used to pay the bill. In other words, you need to send them proof of payment in whatever form you made it. Be sure to cover up any bank account information that may be on the document before you send it in.

Should the bill for which the collector has contacted you be in addition to the bill you paid, you will need to make arrangements to pay what is owed. I suggest that you first try to make arrangements with the patient-accounts department at the hospital directly. They may or may not be open to such an arrangement. Explain that you did not know you owed the bill and depending on the amount due, let them know what you can afford to pay. You may need to make monthly payments, and if that is the case, don't offer to pay more each month than you can realistically afford. The same applies to dealing with a collector.

To determine if the collector has incorrectly reported anything to the credit bureaus, get free copies of your credit reports from each of the three major bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Worrying about this collection attempt can make you sick all over again. Understanding your rights is strong medicine for the stress of bill collectors. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you from abuse. You can find debt collection FAQs at the Federal Trade Commission website.

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