Dealing with a creditor or calls from debt collectors can be stressful.
If this happens, you may be tempted to resolve the situation as soon as possible by paying the account. But what if the debt isn’t yours? This can happen for many reasons, including identity theft, name mix-ups or account reporting errors. If a debt collector has contacted you about a debt you don’t recognize, or an account you’ve already paid off, it might be a mistake on their part.
Don’t simply agree to pay it. Here’s how to prove a debt is not yours — as well as stop debt collection activities and prevent further damage to your credit.
Four ways to prove a debt is not yours
There are several ways to prove a debt doesn’t belong to you, but the fastest — and easiest — way depends on how you learned about it. For example, if you receive an alert from your credit monitoring app, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus.
If you learn about the debt directly from a debt collector, the best thing you can do is ask the collection agency to send you a debt validation letter. Or, if possible, you can contact the original creditor and ask them to validate it.
Time is of the essence: You have 30 days to dispute a debt or part of a debt from the time you receive the required information from the debt collector. Once you dispute the debt, the debt collector is not allowed to contact you to collect the debt (or the disputed part) until written verification of the debt has been provided to you.
Pro tip: Make sure to make your request in writing, and send it by certified mail with a receipt requested, to ensure that the debt collector has gotten your request.
With that said, here are the best ways to prove a debt is not yours.
1. Demand notice of your debt in writing
This is most important. Debt collectors are legally required to provide specific information about the debt they’re trying to collect. These are also sometimes called debt validation letters. This information should include the following:
- The name of your original creditor.
- The amount you owe.
- Proper dates surrounding the debt.
- Any other documents or information from the original creditor.
- Your options for dealing with or disputing the debt.
First, ask if the debt validation letter has already been sent to you. If it has not, tell your creditor you will not discuss the debt until you have the letter in hand. If they fail to send the letter, you can send a letter instructing them to stop attempting to collect money from you because the debt is invalid.
READ MORE: What is a debt validation letter?
2. Send a debt verification letter
Once you receive the debt validation letter from the debt collector, you must respond in writing to dispute the debt or request more information.
Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, debt validation letters and debt verification letters are two very different tools. As already mentioned, the debt validation letter is sent to you by the debt collector. The debt verification letter is sent by you to the debt collector. The letter you send can either dispute the debt entirely, or request additional information, but if you believe the debt is not yours after reading the validation letter, you must complete this step.
Pro tip: Once you receive a debt validation letter, you have 30 days to respond by sending a debt verification letter (via certified mail with a return receipt). If you don’t send a debt verification letter within 30 days, the collection agency or creditor will likely assume the debt is actually yours and continue pursuing payment.
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has several sample letter templates you can use for debt collectors trying to collect money from you.
If the debt collector fails to respond to your verification letter and continues collection efforts, it is a violation of your legal rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. You then have a right under the FDCPA to countersue your debt collector for up to $1,000 per violation, plus fees.
READ MORE: How to deal with debt collectors
3. Pull and inspect your credit report
You should obtain a copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can request your report through the bureaus directly.
Once you have your credit reports, review them carefully for any errors or potentially fraudulent activity. Make sure any accounts on your reports are yours. Compare them side-by-side to ensure that the information is consistent.
If you find a debt that you suspect is not yours, dispute it with the reporting creditor and credit bureau. You can send a dispute letter to both parties via certified mail. Be sure to include the following information:
- Your full name and contact information (ex. address and phone number)
- Any account numbers and confirmation numbers (if applicable)
- The reason for disputing the information on the report
- A copy of your credit report highlighting the error
- Any other supporting documents proving the debt is incorrect or not yours
You may also be able to dispute an error with the appropriate credit bureau either online or by phone:
- Experian: (888) 397-3742 or experian.com
- TransUnion: (800) 916-8800 or dispute.transunion.com
- Equifax: (866) 349-5191 or equifax.com
Pro tip: If the debt collector cannot prove you owe the debt, they must remove the negative marks from your credit report. Once removed, your credit score should improve.
READ MORE: What is a 609 dispute letter?
4. Dispute the debt with the creditor or debt collector
Once you send a written dispute, the creditor or debt collector cannot contact you or try to collect money until they’ve verified the debt is yours. During this time, do not make any payments on the debt in question. Also, avoid sharing bank account information or other identifying details with the agency.
Another thing you can do is verify if the debt is still within its statute of limitations. If it’s not, the debt is considered “time-barred.” This means the debt collector can no longer file a lawsuit or take other legal action against you.
The statute of limitations varies by state and contract type. In North Carolina, for example, it’s three years on most unsecured debts, including credit card and auto loan debt. In Texas, meanwhile, it’s four years on most debts.
If the debt is yours, you’ll still be responsible for repaying it even if the statute of limitations has expired. However, it’s important that you don’t restart the timeline by making a payment on the account.
READ MORE: Will this 11-word phrase stop debt collectors?
What to do next if a debt is legitimately yours
While trying to prove a debt is not yours, you might find that you legitimately owe the money. In that case, the debt is still your responsibility, and the best thing to do is pay it off.
Pro tip: You can speak with your creditor or debt collector and negotiate a payment plan that suits your financial situation. Depending on your circumstances, the lender might agree to reduce monthly payment amounts, waive late fees, or lower interest rates. If they agree to a payment plan, get everything in writing.
If you cannot afford to repay the debt, and your creditor refuses to negotiate a payment plan, see if you qualify for different forms of debt relief. This includes:
- Debt settlement: With a debt settlement plan, your creditors agree to reduce what you owe by a certain amount. You’ll need to repay the remaining amount, but your monthly payments and total debt amount should be lower.
- Debt management plans: Debt management plans typically last three to five years. They work by taking your eligible unsecured debts and enrolling them into one program designed to help you pay them off over time. You’ll typically need to go through a nonprofit credit counseling agency for this.
- Debt consolidation: If you have good credit, you could qualify for a debt consolidation loan or 0% APR balance transfer credit card. You could combine several high-interest debts into one loan (or card) with one monthly payment. This can make it easier to avoid late fees and save you money in interest fees.
Learn your rights
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a federal law that protects consumers from unfair, abusive, threatening or deceptive debt collection practices. If a debt collector contacts you, don’t feel threatened or offer personal information. Instead, ask them for some identifying information, such as:
- Company name and contact information
- Debt collector’s name
- Original creditor’s name and contact information
- Debt in question
Several federal and state laws protect you from unlawful practices and scams. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has additional information about spotting and dealing with fake or abusive debt collectors.
Watch this video to learn more about how the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you:
File a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
If you’re dealing with a particularly difficult debt collector, or if they refuse to validate a debt or cease their collection efforts, file a complaint with the CFPB. The easiest way to do this is online, but you can call them at (855) 411-2372. You should also contact your state attorney general’s office.
Make sure you include all relevant information in your complaint, including:
- Important dates (ex. each time they’ve contacted you)
- Details about the debt collector like their name, agency, and contact information
- Any relevant documents you’ve received
- Your name, address, phone number, and email address
Indicate how you’d like the situation to be resolved, too. You can also include any methods you’ve already taken to try to resolve the matter yourself.
Do not ignore a debt that isn’t yours
It might be tempting to ignore harassing calls from debt collectors or creditors, but this could make your situation worse.
Failure to respond is like telling the debt collector you agree the debt is yours, even if it’s not. It could also damage your credit report or cause the debt collector to take legal action against you. If they end up suing you and you skip out on an important court date, the judge could garnish your wages or bank account, or you could even end up in jail for contempt of court.
The bottom line
Now that you know how to prove a debt is not yours, the next step is to keep an eye on your accounts and credit reports. Check for any changes you don’t recognize, and be prepared to dispute any errors that are dragging down your credit score.
If a debt collector contacts you about a debt, verify that it’s yours. Also, check whether the statute of limitations has passed. If the debt is valid, try to find a way to pay it. And if it’s not, dispute it with the reporting credit bureau or original creditor.
Generally, you’ll only be responsible for someone else’s debt if your names are on the account. If, for example, you have a joint auto loan or personal loan with someone, you are responsible for it, too. You might also be responsible for a debt from a spouse that’s passed away.
You can still dispute a debt after a creditor or debt collector files a lawsuit. You may also be able to resolve a debt after your creditor receives a judgment against you. Consider speaking with a lawyer about your options in this situation. Also, read over any lawsuit details and respond before the deadline.
A 609 dispute letter is a letter that identifies any negative or inaccurate information on your credit report and requests its removal from your report. You can send this letter to the reporting credit bureau. Once you do, they must verify the item as accurate or remove it.
When it comes to debts or other liabilities and marriage, your course of action depends on a few factors. If the debt belongs to a spouse or ex-spouse, it is their responsibility to pay it off. If a debt collector contacts you about such a debt, you may be able to dispute it. But if the debt is from a joint account under both of your names, it’s legally your responsibility.
Upon divorce, the court will usually try to divide all debts and debts fairly. In some cases, this means a 50/50 split. But some states have equitable-distribution laws. You could be responsible for your ex-spouse’s debt, depending on the court’s decision.
When in doubt, confirm who owns the account. Based on that information, you may need to pay or dispute it.