Mistaken Debt Collection

Creditors don’t always get it right.  And sometimes, their mistakes mean that you end up facing debt collection for a debt you don’t owe, either because you’ve already paid it or because the debt was never yours in the first place.  Here are some steps you can take when that happens:

1.     If the debt collector is calling you, it is probably worth trying to talk to them at least once to see if you can sort it out without additional hassle.  Many times, that’s enough for them to realize their mistake.

2.     If the conversation doesn’t get the job done, request a “validation notice.”  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) requires debt collectors to send one within five days of contacting you for the first time.  If they don’t, send a written request for one, ideally within 30 days.  To have the best record of your request, send it certified mail, return receipt requested, and make sure to keep a copy of the letter for yourself.  Under the FDCPA, the validation notice should tell you the creditor to whom you supposedly owe the debt and what to do if you don’t think you owe the money.

3.     Check your credit report to make sure the debt hasn’t been added.  You can get a free credit report each year at annualcreditreport.com.  If there’s a debt on there that shouldn’t be, dispute it in writing with the credit reporting agency.  There are three major credit reporting agency—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.  If more than one of them is reporting the mistaken debt, you will need to send separate disputes.  Again, make sure to keep copies of your disputes and proof that you sent them.  The credit reporting agencies have to investigate and get back to you within 30 days.  At minimum, they have to mark the debt as disputed.

4.     If the calls don’t stop, you can ask the debt collector to stop calling.  That’s also best done in writing, certified mail, return receipt requested.  Be aware, though, that if they think the debt is valid, they can still try to sue to collect.

5.     Do not pay someone else’s debt!  Once you pay it, you can be considered to have accepted legal responsibility for it, even if there was a mistake, and this can do serious harm to your credit rating.

6.     Keep track of your communications with the debt collectors.  Keep records of the mail you send and receive, and keep a log of the calls.

7.    If the debt collector or the credit reporting agencies don’t comply with your requests, or if you think the debt collector may sue you to collect the debt, contact a lawyer.


What is unfair debt collection?

Both federal and DC law set limits on the methods debt collectors can use to collect a debt from you.  If debt collectors are calling nonstop, threatening you with arrest, or pretending to be someone they’re not, they may be breaking the law.  Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the DC Debt Collection Law, or both, debt collectors are not allowed to harass you, make false statements, or use other unfair methods.  The laws are written broadly to protect consumers, but they list a number of examples of bad behavior. 

Prohibited harassment against you or someone else based on your debt can include:

  • threats of violence or harm
  • using obscene or profane language
  • calling you excessively, at odd hours (before 8 AM or after 9 PM), or anonymously
  •  making your debt public by
  • publishing your name as someone who doesn’t pay
  • contacting you by postcard
  • unreasonably contacting your employer or family members outside of your household

Debt collectors are also not allowed to lie to you.  They cannot, for example:

  • falsely claim to be attorneys or government representatives
  • accuse or threaten to falsely accuse you of fraud, a crime, or any conduct that would tend  to be disgraceful, or tell you that you or someone else will be arrested for not paying your  debt
  • tell you that they work for a credit reporting company
  • give you false information about the amount you owe, the nature of the debt, or the legal status of the debt
  • misrepresent the nature of paperwork as legal forms if it’s not or as not legal forms if it is—or send you something that looks like an official government document if it isn’t
  • tell you that they will seize, garnish, or attach your property or wages, or that they will take legal action against you unless that are legally allowed to and intend to
  •  threaten to sell your debt and telling you or implying that the sale would affect your rights or that the buyer will be abusive in its collection tactics
  • use a false name
  • give false credit information to anyone, including a credit reporting agency
  • tell you that the debt may be increased by service fees, legal fees, or other charges
  • promise something of value to trick you into providing information

Other unfair practices include:

  • charging unauthorized interest, fees, or other charges, on top of the debt
  • taking or threatening to take your property without legal authority to do so
  • depositing a post-dated check early
  • sending you a debt collection letter without clearly notifying you that it is a debt collection letter
  • hiding the name of the person seeking repayment
  • calling you collect

Both federal and DC law allow you to sue for damages if a debt collector uses these methods.