February 2, 2013 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I have started getting calls from a debt collector. I only answer my phone when I recognize the number, so I only know these calls are from a debt collector because of the voicemail transcriptions. I have no idea what the debt is. I am absolutely terrified of debt, irrationally so. My instincts are telling me "IGNORE! IGNORE!" but I know that's not the right course of action. Help me figure out what I need to do. Throwaway email at

I have so many questions.

What happens if the debt is legitimate but it's more than I can pay?
What happens if I call them back?
What happens if I do nothing?
What do I need to know about how debt collectors operate, and what they can do in pursuit of collecting a debt?
If I call them back, am I admitting to owing a debt?
My biggest question is this: what are the steps I need to take to resolve this safely, sanely, and with the absolute minimum of people yelling at me?

I have no idea what the debt is, but I don't think it can be anything very huge because I don't have anything like a big credit card debt or student debt or whatever. (I don't have any kind of loans.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Did the voicemails specify that they were calling about your debt? If not, this may not be about you at all. I've been contacted by debt collectors before because they were trying to get in touch with my friend. She had put me as a contact when first getting her debt, then her phone number changed, and the company called me to find out how to get in touch with her.

So, just keep that in mind. No matter what, this is something that can be worked out... And, in fact, it may involve nothing having to be "worked out" at all.
posted by meese at 9:02 AM on February 2, 2013

Are you sure they're calling for you? I know a few people who have been hounded by debt collectors for no other reason than having a phone number or address that formerly belonged to a debtor or is sufficiently similar that a transcription error pointed the collector to that address or phone number.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:04 AM on February 2, 2013

You don't say where you are so specifics are a little difficult, but the obvious first step is to answer the phone and find out who they are calling for and what debt they are attempting to collect. Calling them back is IN NO WAY an admission of liability for the debt.

If they are actually calling for you, ask for details of the debt. In most areas you have a right to demand written confirmation of the basis of the alleged debt. Along with this right is usually a right to have no further collection efforts made for a period of time, usually 30 days.

If, in fact, you owe the debt you will almost certainly be able to work out a payment arrangement with the collector if it is more than you can pay at once. Some collectors are more reasonable than others but they want to collect money, and fees, not have to do additional work to hassle you if they can get paid more easily.

From the facts you state you are going to suffer more by avoiding than by dealing with this.
posted by uncaken at 9:05 AM on February 2, 2013

You can easily find out if the debt is "yours" by checking your credit report(s). This is very easy and free at Then you can go into problem solving mode, if necessary, and if it's not yours you can safely pick up the phone and correct their mistaken contact information.
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:21 AM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

What uncaken said.

Talk to them and find out what they want. If they are trying to collect a debt from you, get it in writing. Do NOT agree to pay anything during a phone conversation. Make it clear to them that you are not going to agree to pay anything during a phone conversation. Conduct any and all subsequent conversation in writing.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:24 AM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

check your credit report and If it is your debt wait for them to mail a collection letter. otherwise ignore the calls.
posted by Gungho at 9:26 AM on February 2, 2013

This information from the FTC may help you.

Essentially, you want to send them a letter asking them to validate the debt. You can call them back and just ask for their address to send the letter. And, even if the debt is yours and not a wrong number, you can ask them to stop calling you. Details in the FTC link. It's recommended that you keep everything in writing after the initial call back to get their address, and that you send letters certified mail, return receipt requested.
posted by payoto at 9:34 AM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Our phone number was previously owned by someone who had been sick and had a lot of debt. We were hounded by debt collectors masquerading as salesmen for more than two years calling illegally at 6:00 a.m. and after 10:00 p.m. We're on the do not call" list, and we don't pick up when we don't know who's on the other end. Finally, I got sick of the calls and took one. Turned out, they were a very nasty, very threatening brand of debt collector operating totally outside the law. When they learned we were not who they were after, they were not apologetic - they were threatening!

I asked around, and in the state where I currently live, this is not uncommon. I'd never heard of such a thing before. I did a little digging. There are laws regulating these people.

They are not allowed to call before 9:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. They are not allowed to call your place of work. They are not allowed to threaten you.

They won't go away if you don't talk to them. They might not go away if you do talk to them. Talks with our state Attorney General were useless. The debt might well not be yours. They don't care. All they want is "their" money (debatable. Don't agree to anything. Sometimes, they're after debt that is no longer collectible. Sometimes, they're after debt owed by other family members. Sometimes, they will try to make you pay debt not connected to you at all).

Don't be terrified. They count on your terror. You have rights. Learn them and exercise them!

The way I finally go them to leave us alone was by using their tactics. I spent several days calling them and tying up their phones. I made it clear I would continue until their calls stopped. Their calls stopped.
posted by clarkstonian at 9:50 AM on February 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I've had them call me because I have a relatively rare last name, and so they just assume I'm related/connected to the person with this name that they really want to get hold of. Go ahead and answer, and if it's not you, tell them so.
posted by easily confused at 9:57 AM on February 2, 2013

If you're in the US, you can tell them not to call you and to conduct all communication in writing. This is one of your rights under federal law. Just send them a letter back stating that you wish to conduct all further communication in writing (do NOT claim the debt until you are sure it is yours. Don't even say anything that could be implied as claiming the debt).

I have gotten absolutely hounded over other people's debts before too because I have a commonish name.

I got a couple places to stop calling me like this and just mailed back and forth. It irked one of them, and he kept asking me to talk over the phone, but his hands were tied since I requested a written paper trail only.
posted by Fire at 10:00 AM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've heard secondhand stories about debt collectors like Clarkstonian describes, but I've never encountered that personally or professionally. I have encountered numerous situations where collectors were calling the wrong number. In all those cases, the collector immediately stopped calling once informed of the mistake.

Poke around Google. There are many pages that clearly explain the answers to your questions. I would suggest that you start with search terms like "debt collection FAQ [your_state]." You may find that your state attorney general's office has a website with information that will answer your questions more authoritatively than we can, here. In my home state, for instance, there are helpful pages from the attorney general and the trial-court law library. Look for similar resources in your state.

There is some good advice in this thread, and it also sounds like you have good instincts that you are ignoring. Have some confidence in yourself, and remember that we don't imprison or execute debtors any more. You'll be fine. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 10:31 AM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was getting calls from a debt collector on my cellphone for a few months, twice a day. They normally didn't leave messages (I didn't answer the phone because I didn't recognize the number). Eventually, they did leave a message indicating that they were trying to collect debt from someone else - they either had the wrong number or an old number - so I cleared it up with them the next time they called and I was available to answer. But, until I answered the phone, I would get two calls a day, and they weren't going to stop.
posted by LionIndex at 10:41 AM on February 2, 2013

You can google the phone number that's calling you. Most common collection service numbers have been tracked by others who have been called by the same number.
posted by shoesietart at 11:06 AM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had to deal with several collection agencies in the past seven years, due to medical debt incurred by my mother before she died, and by my dad as he entered a nursing home.

On the advice of a friend who was also a paralegal, I send the following letter via certified mail. It's always worked for me. Most agencies I never here back from, and one I got in trouble with the California Attorney General's office and the California Bar Association:

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is being sent to you in response to a notice mailed to me on February 2, 2013. Be advised that this is not a refusal to pay, but a notice sent pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 USC 1692g Sec. 809 (b) that your claim is disputed and validation is requested.

This is NOT a request for “verification” or proof of my mailing address, but a request for VALIDATION made pursuant to the above named Title and Section. I respectfully request that your offices provide me with competent evidence that I have any legal obligation to pay you.

Please provide me with the following:

*What the money you say I owe is for;
*Explain and show me how you calculated what you say I owe;
*Provide me with copies of any papers that show I agreed to pay what you say I owe;
*Provide a verification or copy of any judgment if applicable;
*Identify the original creditor;
*Prove the Statute of Limitations has not expired on this account
*Show me that you are licensed to collect in my state
*Provide me with your license numbers and Registered Agent

At this time I will also inform you that if your offices have reported invalidated information to any of the 3 major Credit Bureau’s (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion) this action might constitute fraud under both Federal and State Laws. Due to this fact, if any negative mark is found on any of my credit reports by your company or the company that you represent I will not hesitate in bringing legal action against you for the following:

*Violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act
*Violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
*Defamation of Character

If your offices are able to provide the proper documentation as requested in the following Declaration, I will require at least 30 days to investigate this information and during such time all collection activity must cease and desist.

Also during this validation period, if any action is taken which could be considered detrimental to any of my credit reports, I will consult with my legal counsel for suit. This includes any listing any information to a credit reporting repository that could be inaccurate or invalidated or verifying an account as accurate when in fact there is no provided proof that it is.

If your offices fail to respond to this validation request within 30 days from the date of your receipt, all references to this account must be deleted and completely removed from my credit file and a copy of such deletion request shall be sent to me immediately.

I would also like to request, in writing, that no telephone contact be made by your offices to my home or to my place of employment. If your offices attempt telephone communication with me, including but not limited to computer generated calls and calls or correspondence sent to or with any third parties, it will be considered harassment and I will have no choice but to file suit. All future communications with me MUST be done in writing and sent to the address noted in this letter by USPS.

It would be advisable that you assure that your records are in order before I am forced to take legal action. This is an attempt to correct your records, any information obtained shall be used for that purpose.

Best Regards

My experience is that a lot of debt collectors are very, very shady, and will back off the minute you start acting like you know what you're talking about. And if they're legit, they will have no problem giving the information requested above, or complying with your requests.

Good luck!
posted by magstheaxe at 11:35 AM on February 2, 2013 [118 favorites]

I was contacted, repeatedly, by a debt collector who was actually looking for me. I wrote to them and demanded that they send me proof of the debt, which is what the law permits me to do. They sent me a screenshot of my account, showing that the debt had been paid in full over a year ago, and included yet another demand that I pay it. I wrote back, said, "Um, are you brain dead? The thing you sent me shows the debt as paid in full." They never wrote or called again.

Answer the phone, tell them to contact you in writing, and follow up with it. If you really do owe this, and can't afford it, you can work out a payment plan. If you don't deal with it, though, and it's actually your name on the debt, it will sink your credit rating, which can not only harm your credit applications, but also hurt you when you apply for an apartment or even a job. Don't let this go.

Good luck.
posted by Capri at 12:04 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Answer the phone. They will ask if you are your name. If it's for someone else, simply state that there is no one by that name at this number and say goodbye. IF they continue to call you, they might be violating rules.

If it's a real debt that you incurred, ask what the debt is. I just got a collection call for a hospital bill that my insurance co. is being a total jerk about. I explained this, and agreed to continue my efforts w/ insurance co.

At one time, I had a spat with my credit card co. and disputed the interest charges. Not long ago, a collection agency called and offered a good deal to resolve it. I accepted it, paid, and am much happier to have it off my "people to argue with" list.

If you owe a bill, admit nothing, and tell them to call you back in a week so that you have time to check on it. Think it over and decide how you want to handle it. It's better to give yourself some time; once you agree to a payment schedule, you're committed. Good for you for avoiding debt, and this may very well be no big deal, and will almost certainly be manageable. If not, come back and ask again.
posted by theora55 at 12:30 PM on February 2, 2013

From a user who prefers to remain anonymous:
What happens if I do nothing?

If the debt is actually yours/in your name:

They will either keep calling you and sending you letters, or they will abandon that and sue you, which could lead to wage garnishment. They can do that even if it's not yours, even if it's just a grand or two, if you don't either determine and prove that it's not your debt or make satisfactory (to them) arrangements to pay. So there is really no benefit to ignoring it.

And in my experience, living on edge for months and months waiting for the figurative shoe to drop was tortuous anyway. I ended up paying in full and owed court costs to boot, but it was a small price to pay to have the whole thing be over.

As a counterpoint, my boyfriend (who has great credit) was denied a credit card balance transfer. The rep suggested he pull his credit report, which he did and found that there was a debt in collections that he'd never heard of. Turns out he owed like 7 dollars and some change on a utility bill from way back. So... even if it's something small, it could impact your credit in some real ways.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:39 PM on February 2, 2013

I started getting calls from a credit card's in-house collections department several years back. It's a good thing I eventually got back to them, because it turned out someone had stolen my identity to the tune of several thousand dollars. Because I cooperated, the credit card fraud investigator wound up doing me a couple of good turns and I am completely in the clear today. The identity thief was eventually apprehended and brought to justice.

However, none of this means that the calls YOU are getting are actually for you. I had dunning calls for someone who used to have my current phone number as well. I did ignore those!

Follow the advice above about getting the collector to verify the debt in writing and to stop the phone calls. Also get copies of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:44 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

you should answer and see why they are calling and whom they are looking for. it might not be you. whenever i've changed address or phone number i get a few errant calls looking for the previous owner of that number / resident at that address. also, maybe someone made a typo and wound up with your info.

worst case scenario, you've been the victim of identity theft and in that case you need to figure out exactly what happened and how much you owe as a result, so that you can dispute the illegal charges and avoid having negative information on your credit history.

magstheaxe's letter is great, and you should use it, if these debts are actually yours and you actually may need to pay them.

as a routine thing, get a free copy of your credit report every year and look it over (you're entitled to 1 free copy a year from each of the 3 agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, under federal law.) you can request the report online at

you can also place a fraud alert or a freeze on your account for free, with each agency, if you see something on the credit report / or hear something from one of the collectors that indicates you have been the victim of identity fraud. the alert will make sure you are contacted if someone tries to open a line of credit in your name. a freeze places even more preventative restrictions on transactions using your credit file, and third party access to its contents, i think.
posted by zdravo at 1:36 PM on February 2, 2013

I recently got a call from a debt collector. I basically told him to screw off. Later, I checked it out and he had been correct about the debt. I had a copay from a hospital visit and for some reason, the hospital had been sending bills to an old address.

I think you should answer when they call. Just knowing what the issue is will take a weight off your shoulders.
posted by kat518 at 4:17 PM on February 2, 2013

Also, OP, please take a look at this article from

23 Things Debt Collectors Are Not Allowed To Do (this article does assume you're in the USA; the info is collated from
posted by magstheaxe at 8:19 PM on February 2, 2013

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