By Maria-Jose Subiria
There was a time when consumers had to put on their own boxing gloves to fight back against debt collectors who erroneously made them responsible for someone else's debt, also known as debt tagging, said a local Better Business Bureau (BBB) spokeswoman.
According to Dottie Callina, of the BBB Serving Metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which became effective on March 20, 1978, consumers are protected through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), from debt collectors.
Fred Elsberry, Jr., spokesman for the local BBB, added that individuals should familiarize themselves with the consumer-protections information provided in the law. The act includes rules that debt collectors may not use false or dishonest claims, and they must investigate the grounds of a dispute over a debt, Elsberry said.
"It can be an exhausting process to set the record straight on a debt you don't actually owe," he said, in a prepared statement. "Because debts are often sold and resold to many different collection agencies over time, you may have to make the same case every few years when the debt [changes] hands again."
Elsberry said some consumers may be mistaken for the actual debtor for various reasons. It may be mistaken identity: The person may share the same name of the actual individual in debt, or the person may have inherited the same phone number of the debtor.
Another reason a consumer may be a victim of debt tagging is "zombie debt," said Elsberry.
Zombie debt is when the original debt has been paid off, but it wasn't recorded, according to Callina.
Elsberry added that zombie debt also applies when "the statute of limitations on the debt has expired and the debt collector is trying to get you to pay for a debt you can no longer be taken to court over."
Elsberry said there are several ways individuals can protect themselves from debt tagging. He
said consumers have the right to request written proof of the debt. By law, a debt collection agency must provide the individual with a validation notice within five days of contact. After receiving the validation notice, consumers can take it a step further by sending a written request to the debt collector, within 30 days, for the verification of debt, he said.
"This written proof can help you determine if the callers are actually identity thieves, or if you really do owe the debt," said Elsberry. "Once you have the name and contact information for the agency, confirm they are a legitimate debt collector, through the BBB at www.bbb.org."
If the debt is wrongfully claimed by the collection agency, the individual should inform the collector of the error and advise the party to cease contact, he said.
"According to federal law, a debt collector cannot continue to contact you -- at work or home -- if you tell them to stop," said Elsberry.
He added that consumers should correct any erroneous information about a debt on their credit reports, by informing the reporting credit bureau, through a detailed letter that includes copies of relevant documents that would prove their case.
For more information, visit the FTC web site at www.ftc.gov, he said.