debt

Hey, it's not my bill to pay!

Steve Bucciq_v2.gifDear Debt Adviser,
A debt collector called me last week about a debt from 2002! I know this is not my debt. It's for a phone bill from a different state! They had my Social Security number and everything. This is a debt that showed up on my credit report a few years back and I notified the credit bureau that it wasn't mine. They supposedly reviewed it and the matter was to have been resolved, but I never got any paperwork. Now this debt collector is calling and harassing my family and sending me notices. What do I do?

Do I have to pay for another credit report and file a complaint again? This is so upsetting and really causing a lot of stress for me. Can you steer me in the right direction? Thanks so much!
-- Amy

a_v2.gifDear Amy,
I know how upset you must feel. Having a collector harass you out of the blue is a lot like being the victim of an assault or a crime. Will anyone believe you? How do you prove your innocence? And it is so embarrassing for most of us.

Fortunately, the law is on your side. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, says you have 30 days to respond to a collection attempt and you are well within your rights to dispute the alleged debt. The collector might have the wrong person, or you could be the victim of a scam to get money for a bogus bill. Either way, you have the right to have the collection agency prove that you owe the money.

All you need to do is ask that they provide proof of the debt. Write to them using certified mail, with a return receipt requested. Keep copies of everything and notes of any calls. Demand communication through the mail. Having information mailed opens any possible scammers to mail fraud charges and ups the ante for them. For more tips regarding the FDCPA, go to the Federal Trade Commission's Web site or search under FDCPA.

When you dispute the bill, the collector must stop all collection activity and send you proof before reinitiating contact. If they violate this provision, you can have them sued.

As for your credit report, you no longer have to pay for your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. All you need to do is visit AnnualCreditReport.com and you can receive a copy of your credit report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion absolutely free with no strings attached once every year. I typically recommend that requests for reports be spaced out throughout the year rather than getting all three at once, unless it is necessary to see everything that is being reported at one time. Getting all three right away would probably make the most sense for your current situation, but going forward you could space out your review of each bureau's report throughout the year.

I want you to take a look at your credit reports and see if the phone bill debt shows up as "in collection," or for that matter at all. Because this isn't your bill, you need to again dispute the debt with the bureau, or you can dispute it directly with the creditor that reported it. The dispute process will be spelled out in the materials you get from the bureaus. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that the credit bureau investigate the dispute and if there isn't sufficient proof that the debt is yours, it must be removed. I also suggest that you write to the creditor and tell that firm to stop reporting debt incorrectly.

Errors on credit reports are not unusual for the simple reason that billions of pieces of information are reported, mostly by computers, and mistakes are bound to happen. Still, that doesn't help your sinking stomach when the phone rings. Once you have disputed the bill and sent your letters, screen your calls with caller ID or an answering machine. If the harassment continues, see an attorney. They just love dealing with collectors who are bullies and mistaken. And that will be the end of that tune!

Good luck!

To ask a question of the Debt Adviser go to the "Ask the Experts" page. Read more Debt Adviser columns and more stories about debt management.

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