Jeff Stitt opened his mailbox to find a letter from a company trying to collect on a defaulted Sears account. Stitt said he’s never even paid a bill late, much less defaulted. These days, it’s not unusual for debt collectors to attempt to collect debts that you don’t actually owe. The collector may be mistaking you for someone else with a similar name or address, or the debt may be so old that the company cannot legally force you to pay it.
“The debt collectors are making money hand over fist,” said Houston consumer attorney Dana Karni. She says debt collectors like the one that mailed Stitt a bill pay retailers pennies on the dollar for old debts. Retailers sell old accounts when they deem them uncollectable. Third party debt collectors buy them, figuring any amount they can convince you to pay is profit.
The letter Stitt received said his debt was not only sold once, but twice—first from Sears to NCO Portfolio Management, and then to Merchants Credit Guide Company.
Both debt collection companies made the Texas attorney general’s top 25 for companies with the most consumer complaints in 2006. NCO was No. 1 on the list.
We also found the Federal Trade Commission ordered NCO to pay one of the largest penalties ever under the Fair Credit Reporting Act—$1.5 million for reporting inaccurate information about consumer accounts to credit bureaus.
“Consumers do have rights and they need to stand on those rights,” Karni said.
Your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act say you can contest the debt. Send a letter to the collection agency stating you do not owe the money. You should send this letter by certified mail or send it by fax and obtain a copy of the fax confirmation page. It is important that you keep copies all these documents.
The company must send you proof of the debt, such as a copy of the bill, within 30 days. If you receive a demand letter from a debt collector for a bill you do not owe, in addition to writing the collector, you should also file complaints with the Texas Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission.
- If you receive a phone call from a collector, ask them to send you something in writing stating who they are and information about the debt they are trying to collect.
- A debt collector can contact you at work unless you tell them not to. Once you let them know you cannot receive calls at work, they must stop contacting you there.
- Debt collectors may contact employers, neighbors, and relatives to try to locate you, but they are not allowed to give out any personal information about you or your debt to anyone else without your consent.