Published January 21, 2013
Dear Debt Adviser,
My problem is collection agencies keep calling my home number asking for people who not only don't live here, but they have never lived in my apartment. People show up at the house demanding to see the person who owes money, but it is not me. I live in an apartment complex, and after months of harassment and convincing the agency they have the wrong person, they simply sell the debt to another debt collector, and it starts all over again! The people they are looking for moved about five blocks away three years ago, and I gave them their new address and telephone numbers. However, they still come here and harass me. How can I make this stop?
I feel your pain. Unfortunately, some collection agencies treat oral debt disputes, such as yours, as an immediate signal to sell the debt before it is formally disputed. By selling informally disputed debts, collectors can skirt the legal obligations imposed by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA. You see, once you formally dispute a debt, the act requires the collectors to cease collection efforts or validate the debt. For some sleazy collectors, selling disputed debts is their way to cease their own collection activities while recouping at least part of the price paid for such debts in a subsequent sale. To their way of thinking, it may be cheaper to sell a debt quickly than to take the time to validate it. The net effect is what you are experiencing. The debt goes back into collections to a new agency without validation. This unintended consequence of the FDCPA creates a situation in which debts are sold and resold to the next collector, and this subjects you to an unending cycle of collection and dispute.
What you need to do to stop the harassment is to get everything you can in writing, keep good notes of the phone calls and personal visits and then armed with that ammunition, take action.
First, the FDCPA requires that you dispute an invalid debt in writing within 30 days of first being contacted regarding the debt. You can learn more about your rights under the act by visiting the Federal Trade Commission's website.
You'll need to find out what company is calling you and their mailing address. To get the information you might try answering the caller's first inquiry with, "Who is calling?" They should provide you with their name and the company name. Then, write a letter stating you dispute the debt based on the fact that you are not the person who owes the debt. Send the letter via certified mail with a return receipt requested. Do not give out your personal information to the company in the letter. The debt collector does not have the right to your Social Security number and date of birth. The burden of proof is on the collection agency to prove you are the person who owes the debt, not on you to prove you are not that someone. Upon receiving your letter, the collection company must provide proof that you, not the other person, owe the debt. The debt collector will obviously be unable to produce proof for a debt in your name, so they must stop contacting you per the FDCPA. They must also mark the debt as disputed until the dispute is resolved. A disputed debt has virtually no resale value, but it has a possible liability for the collector.
Should the calls continue, which they may, then file a complaint on the company with your state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission. Send a copy of your complaint to the collection agency, so they know you mean business.
Next, you have the option of contacting a consumer rights attorney in your area to determine if you have a case to sue the collection agency for noncompliance of the FDCPA. This is when you will need to give your attorney your meticulously kept records of phone calls and visits from the collection agency. You could be entitled to damages.