You have the right to collect information from a debt...

You have the right to collect information from a debt collector, including, name, address and phone number. Credit: Getty Images / Martin Dimitrov

The phone rings. You don’t recognize the number, but you answer anyway. It’s a debt collector demanding immediate payment on a debt that doesn’t belong to you, or one you’ve already paid. Suddenly you’re facing a phantom — a phantom debt, that is.

That debt might not belong to you — but telling that to the collector won’t earn you a reprieve.

Phantom debts have two main sources: Misinformed debt collectors and scam debt collectors. If you receive a call from a collector demanding immediate payment on a debt you don’t recognize, you might be talking with a scammer. The same goes for a call about a debt you recognize, but with an incorrect balance.

High-pressure tactics and references to a debt you don’t recognize are red flags.

Don’t make any rash decisions, such as sending a payment to appease the collector.

Know your consumer rights

Your consumer rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) give you tools to fight back against collectors hounding you for a debt you don’t owe.

  • Get the details: You have the right to demand information from debt collectors, including their agency’s name, physical address and phone number.

The first time a collector calls about an unfamiliar debt, ask for a validation letter confirming details. If the debt is legitimate but already paid, these details will help you identify the account. And scammers might be scared off by the request.

  • Round up evidence: Send a written request that the collector stop contacting you for payment on the debt. The FDCPA says collectors must comply.

If you’re dealing with a misinformed collector, use this time to gather proof you paid. Then notify the collector; consider sending a copy of proof of payment and using certified mail to ensure receipt.

Finally, check your credit reports to verify the debt is listed as paid. If not, dispute the credit reports that have the error.

If you’re dealing with a persistent scammer who wasn’t scared off, cite your FDCPA rights and demand no further contact. That might be enough to make scammers move on to an easier mark.

  • Call in the big guns: If the collector won’t back down or respect your consumer rights, file complaints with authorities who have the power to investigate: the Federal Trade Commission, the CFPB and your state attorney general’s office.

Communication with collectors about debt you don’t recognize should be a one-way street, with information flowing to — not from — you. Safeguard personal data, such as your bank account details and Social Security number, no matter how hard a collector presses you to “confirm” them.

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