Never underestimate the tenacity of debt collectors to get their man — even if it’s the wrong one.
I know that experience firsthand.
Several times in this column I’ve written about my case of mistaken identity. Years ago, my home mailing address and phone number somehow got attached to debt collection notices, court records and other documents intended for an alleged debtor who had a similar name.
As a result, I’ve received countless phone calls from collection agencies at all hours. I’ve been mailed legal documents requesting my appearance in court. And one time I even had a county sheriff perched on my doorstep waiting for me to arrive home from work so he could serve me with papers over alleged past-due alimony payments.
I’ll never forget the look on my kids’ faces when I invited the sheriff inside so I could verify my identity. After he left, I felt the need to explain to the young ones that I was not a fugitive from the law, nor did I have a secret identity.
Recently, however, a debt collector crossed the line. Apparently unable to come up with my very public phone number, she tracked down one of my children on his cellphone and pressed him for information on my whereabouts and contact information.
My son, rightfully, refused to cooperate with this stranger during the dinner-hour phone call. But he alerted me to the conversation and passed on the debt collector’s phone number.
The next day, I did what I always do after receiving a debt notification intended for someone else — except this time with a little more feeling. I called the agency, explained my story and requested that my contact information be removed from its file. The agent apologized and said she’d fix it.
Yet if past results hold true, this won’t be my last conversation with a bill collector.
My case is a perfect illustration of a problem faced by many others who have been wrongly accused of skipping out on financial obligations.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a report released last year about debt collectors, said efforts to collect from the wrong person were the top source of complaints about the industry in 2013. About one in four complaints involved mistaken identities, followed by harassing phone calls, the federal agency said.
If you receive a debt collection notice and it’s a case of mistaken identity, don’t ignore it.
Follow up immediately with the collector. Don’t tell the person you want to dispute the billing account. Instead, clearly state this is a complaint about mistaken identity.
Ask to speak to a supervisor if your initial phone conversation seems unsatisfactory. Take notes of the conversation and get a name and direct phone number, if possible, in case there are follow-up concerns. In addition, keep all the paperwork you receive. That paper trail could be essential if problems continue.
Maintain a calm demeanor during the phone conversation. I’ve been through this enough times to know it doesn’t do any good to lose your temper. I also try to keep in mind that debt collection is a tough business and honest mistakes are often made.
I also recommend periodically obtaining free copies of your credit reports to make sure your identity has not been compromised.
Collection agencies are regulated by a number of state and federal laws, so filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may put the business on notice at the very least.
Kids can learn from these adult situations. As curious as they are, they may pick up on a phone conversation or see mail that will raise questions. That should prompt you to explain how to handle these problems — and it also could lead to a discussion about the perils of truly falling behind with credit.
After all, your kids will be exposed soon enough to the world of credit, and they might need some strategies someday to clear their good name.