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.