Dear Debt Adviser,

I was contacted by a collection agency, first by letter, alerting me to a debt they said I owed. I didn't recognize the debt, so I immediately went to my credit report to find it. There is no record of it on my report. After further research, I can find no indication the debt is mine. I called the credit reporting agency and was advised to respond to the collector, asking for proof the debt belonged to me. To date, I have received nothing from the collector other than a second letter much like the first one. At this point I am not sure what to do. Should I call them again or wait this out? As I stated, I have received no proof from the collector. How should I proceed?

-- John

Dear John,
You did the right thing by contacting the collector and requesting verification that the debt belongs to you. If you haven't already, send the request in writing to the address on the letter from the collection company. Just calling and disputing the debt doesn't stop the collection process. A written request stops it until the debt is verified. Send the written debt verification request by certified mail, with a return receipt requested. Keep copies of the letter and the receipt. You may need them later to prove you didn't ignore the collection attempt.

Another recommendation: Look closely at your personal identifying information in the letter from the collection agency. Make sure everything is accurate. For example, your name and street address may be correct, but the Social Security number might not be yours. If any information is incorrect, it's likely the debt was assigned to you in error. You'll need to let the collector know.

More than likely, this debt is so old that even if it is yours it has dropped off your credit report. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, can be your ally. It states that if someone disputes an alleged debt in writing, the collector must cease collection activity until the debt is verified and proof sent to the consumer. My guess is that the collector cannot verify the debt. It may have already been sold to another collector.

Keep an eye on your credit reports and immediately dispute the collection account if it appears on any of your reports. The collection agency must provide the credit bureau with proof the debt is yours, and less than seven years old. If it can't, then the credit bureau must remove it.

Unfortunately, old debts can be bought very cheaply, so you may have to deal with collectors writing or calling about this debt for some time. Every time you dispute it, save a copy of the correspondence. If any collection company continues collection attempts after you dispute it, that's a violation of the FDCPA. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.