This article was first published on NerdWallet.com.
Your credit report can offer crucial details when you’re being pursued by a debt collector — especially if you question the amount, don’t recognize the debt or already paid it.
Errors can slip into delinquent debt accounts that are sold and resold among debt collectors. This can lead debt collectors to ask the wrong person for payment or seek the wrong amount. Verifying information can help you avoid paying an amount that you don’t have to. The first step is to read your credit reports.
1. Check your credit reports
You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Request all three, because not every creditor reports to all bureaus. Look for the debt in the sections listing accounts and negative information.
The information should include:
- The history of the debt, including the original creditor and amount owed
- The name of the current creditor, which may be a debt collection company
- Its contact information, typically a phone number or address
- The balance on the account
“Your credit report is a powerful financial tool,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education at the credit reporting bureau Experian. “When dealing with collections, being engaged in the credit reporting process is the best thing you can do.”
Reading your reports can clarify whether you did incur the debt, and whether the amount you’re being asked to pay makes sense.
What if it’s not on your reports?
Not all debts will appear on your credit report because:
- Some creditors don’t report to the bureaus. Credit reporting is voluntary, and some creditors choose not to do it.
- The account is too old to be reported. Many negative marks drop from your reports after seven years — but “too old to report” doesn’t mean “too old to collect.”
- The debt collector hasn’t reported the collections account yet. Collectors, just like the original creditor, can report to one or more credit bureaus. Maybe yours hasn’t done so yet, but it may in the future.
You still have ways to get more details.
2. Get more information if you need it
If your credit reports don’t clarify the situation or the debt isn’t there, you can use the debt validation process to get details directly from the debt collector.
You can ask for verification of details such as:
- Documentation that you incurred the original debt, such as a copy of the original contract
- Any fees and interest the debt collector has added to your original balance
- Whether the collector has the authority to collect the debt
It’s important to pin down the facts. Collections accounts aren’t updated as frequently as active ones, so there may be a difference between what’s on your credit reports and the amount the debt collector seeks. If you have a common name or a creditor made a typo in your Social Security number, a debt collector may be pursuing you to pay someone else’s debt.
“Even if you know you owe the debt, you have to know that you’re paying the right person,” says Gabriella Barthlow, senior counselor at Alpha Advisory Group, a financial coaching company. “Validation will require the collector to prove that.”
3. Figure out your next step
If you determine the debt is yours
There are a few ways to take care of a debt in collections, including paying it off in full, establishing a payment plan and settling the debt for less than what is owed. If you disagree with the exact amount owed, straighten that out with the debt collector first. Be prepared to provide documentation proving your case.
In all cases, request written confirmation that you have satisfied the debt.
If it’s an error
If you’re certain the debt you’re being asked to pay is a mistake — because you never owed it or you already paid it — take these two actions:
- Inform the debt collector of the error and request that they cease contact entirely. Third-party debt collectors seeking payment on behalf of a creditor have to obey the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. If they continue to hound you, file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- Then, if the incorrect information is on your credit reports, use the credit bureaus’ dispute process to get it removed.
For both steps, gather all documentation on the debt to help make your case. Keep original paperwork and send only copies.
Why all the focus on documentation? Lists of debts in collections are often resold. If the debt you thought was taken care of didn’t get removed, you may have to repeat this process with a new collector later.
You can further protect yourself by monitoring your credit to watch for errors or accounts heading to collection. Some personal finance websites offer a free credit report and credit score.