Give me back my identity!
August 25, 2007 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Identity Theft Filter: How do I convince debt collectors of my innocence concerning an outstanding debt in my name (that isn't mine)?

On Friday, I received a letter from a Boston-based attorney's office about an outstanding debt of over $5,000 on a Citibank credit card. The problem is that I don't have a Citibank credit card. The letter says that I must respond within 30 days to dispute the debt. If I don't contact them within that time, I would be, in a sense, accepting responsibility.

A bit of my financial history: I'm unemployed and live with my mother. I have a joint credit card with her (I'm the secondary name on it), and I don't really have any need or desire for it, so it's just for emergencies. I haven't charged anything.. probably in about a year, and we've never been a family that uses credit cards recklessly. I have never had any debts, and, in the rare case that something is charged, the balance is always paid off in full. No carried balances, no debt. Never. And that joint credit card is the only one I've ever had or applied for. Any credit card offers received in the mail are shredded to infinitismal bits. My credit report was clean as of May 11, 2007.

I haven't contacted the credit agencies yet (though I will in the next few days) because I already requested my free credit report this year. In May, I started receiving phone calls from a debt collection agency about a J.C. Penney credit card with an outstanding balance, and I assumed that my identity had been stolen. Many of the calls were recordings, which seemed a little fishy. Before I actually was able to speak to a real person at the debt collection agency, I ordered my credit reports and, luckily, they were correct and there was nothing remotely suspicious on them. When I finally was able to speak to a person at the agency, I found out that the person who held the account that was in debt had the same name as me (but with a different initial), as well as a different social security number, birth date, and mailing address. In short, it was determined that they just had the wrong telephone number for the woman, and I've never heard about this situation again. So, the only problem is that it's only been a few months since I've ordered my free credit reports. I thought I had read that if you suspect a theft, you can request a free copy (regardless of when you received your last copy), but I also read that getting your credit report via the website would be easy, too, so I'm guessing that neither are true.

Okay, so, I plan on checking my credit reports early next week, but I'll be contacting this law office (over the phone) before that. I have to follow up in writing, so I would get the credit reports before I send a letter. So, as I said, I don't have this credit card, and I've never had any sort of account with Citibank. I've also never received any correspondence (from Visa/Amex/MC, Citibank, or store, if this was issued by a store) indicating that there is an account in my name. I never received a card, bills, late payment notices, or any other correspondence. Why this sole correspondence now?

I have articles on what one is supposed to do at the sign of suspected identity theft, but before I do any of those things, I'm going to call the law office to dispute the debt. I am REALLY bad at phone communication and feel nauseous about the thought, so I want to plan exactly what I'm going to say in my defense and the questions I'm going to ask before I seek further action. There's a lot of information I'm going to demand - the full name the account is under, any full mailing addresses associated with the account, a social security number, the date the account was opened. What else should I ask that I haven't thought of? How do I dispute the debt? Based on what I've divulged here, is there anything I can say to prove that this is identity theft or mistaken identity? What should I emphasize to make a good case over the phone and, in subsequent written correspondence? Is there anything that I've said that I shouldn't mention.. that might even be detrimental to my case? I was told by a family member not to mention the J.C. Penney situation as it doesn't appear to be linked (or identity theft). Finally, how bad does this whole situation sound? Based on your past experiences or anything you know or have read, how difficult to rectify, and potentially damaging, does this sound? Do you have any advice??

Sorry for the length! I wanted to be complete, and I hope that I did provide all important information. I'm posting this now since I'll have to act quickish, but I won't be able to check responses until evenings. Also, if you should want to email me try my
, and, I'm in a right state, so any help/advice will be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, you get three free credit reports every year, one from each credit agency. Check out
posted by schroedinger at 7:24 AM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't get too worried over identity theft yet; the debt collector must verify the debt to you, and as you have seen in the past, sometimes they are just trolling for people with a similar name in hopes that they just pay up. This website has some boilerplate letters that you can use to write back to the debt collector requesting more information. I've used some of the letters in the past, and in two of the occasions, we never heard back from the collector and in the third, we did get a copy of of the disputed bill. At that point, if they do send a copy of the bill, you can verify the information.

IANAL, but this related site gives a lot of information about the "Fair Debt Collection Practices Act", which probably applies in this case.

Fair warning - both sites are a little busy and look straight out of 1995, but they both have pretty decent information.
posted by dforemsky at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2007

I, like you, hate dealing with creditors by phone. Writing can be more effective as you have a clear paper trail, and because you can't be pressured into misstating something verbally which can later be used against you.

When dealing with creditors (whether or not the debt is valid), I've found the Nolo books very helpful - your local library might have a copy worth checking out and perusing over the weekend. The info in the books is really practical, they give you lots of example form letters to use, and hopefully you'll understand what rights you have at this stage. Hope it can be cleared up quickly.
posted by pants at 7:46 AM on August 25, 2007

Keep in mind that this debt could be something simple like a person using a fake social security number that happened to be yours. This happened to my wife -- she got a letter from a cell phone company demanding $2,000 because someone had used her SSN when opening their account. Neither the name nor the address matched, but she still got the threatening letter when it came time to collect.

The point is, don't panic until you have all the facts.
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:22 AM on August 25, 2007

Also, there are scam debt collection agencies out there, so be wary of that as well.
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2007

(Which is to say, don't volunteer any information to them; let them tell you who they're looking for, etc. Especially don't give them your social security number or other private data.)
posted by BackwardsCity at 8:24 AM on August 25, 2007

I'm going to call the law office to dispute the debt.

Don't do this. Send them a certified letter. Demand information; don't give it.
posted by oaf at 8:35 AM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not sure how it is here (US) but in some countries it helps if you file a police report on fraud. Check into this. (Google?)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:40 AM on August 25, 2007

You're bad with phone conversations? I'd communicate with them exclusively by mail then; this is within your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Before you write, call the three major credit bureaus and get your reports; be informed. Also have them place a fraud alert on your file--this will prevent anyone from opening any accounts in your name without your permission.

You are understandably nervous about this, but the important thing to remember here is that you are, in fact, completely innocent and do not owe anyone a penny. Once you've got your credit reports, compose a letter letting them know they have a case of mistaken identity and request more details about the debt. If they call in the meantime, don't let them bully you, just tell them you prefer to communicate with them by mail and you'll be sending a letter.
posted by zachlipton at 8:56 AM on August 25, 2007

I had some bad identity theft problems a few years back. Separate from the process of cleaning up my credit report via legal means and credit agencies, I discovered the best way to get the collection agencies off my back was to tell them that I was dead. So whenever they called I just said "I'm sorry, this is a business phone. Charlesv passed away about a month ago. I have his new office extension. I never met the guy. Were you a friend?"

Sounds silly, but within a few weeks all the collectors had stopped calling.
posted by charlesv at 8:57 AM on August 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been going through something like this for...going on seven years now. In my case it wasn't identity theft; it was someone with an identical name who lived in my city for a few months and some incompetent skip tracer mixed the two of us up. For several months I was deluged with threatening calls and letters. Stemming this to a manageable flow involved, as above posters have mentioned, letter writing. Firm, no-nonsense, "this is how it is going to be; I am angry but very businesslike and might sic a lawyer on you" type letter writing. Keep copies of all your letters. Follow through with a letter for every notice you receive, for telephone calls, one a week for each agency that calls you that week. I still receive one to two automated calls a day from one company that I was never able to trace an address for.

Get another copy of your credit history, if it's clean chances are this is an id mixup and not theft. My adventure with the debt collectors hasn't hurt my credit rating since my SS# is different from the original woman's; hopefully this will be true in your case as well.
posted by frobozz at 9:56 AM on August 25, 2007

Follow these steps.

Don't wait any more to call the credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on your data! This will help stop any further accounts being taken out on your information.

Also, if I interpret this info correctly you are entitled to an additional free report because you are the subject of fraud.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES agree to pay anything to make this charge go away. Inform them that you are filing an identity theft report, and ask for information to contact the security or fraud department of the company that issued the card. Do not talk to them about your situation. Do not explain your credit history to them or what happened with JC Penny. Get your script together and stick to it. This is fraud, I am taking the appropriate steps, give me the number of the security or fraud department of the issuing company. If they try to get you to talk about settling tell them that if they don't give them the information you are requesting you will report them along with your theft report for violating federal law. If they don't comply then hang up and report them as a possible accomplice to fraud when you file an ID theft report. You do not have to convince these people you are on the level, you don't need to talk to them at all except to get the info you need to proceed with correcting this fraud. You have to convince the fraud department of the issuing company. Talking to them will be a different affair. Make sure you are talking to a legitimate representative (see below) and with that person, the security/fraud rep of the issuing company, tell them whatever they need to know and take whatever reasonable actions they suggest.

When I finally was able to speak to a person at the agency, I found out that the person who held the account that was in debt had the same name as me (but with a different initial), as well as a different social security number, birth date, and mailing address.

I hate to say it but did you verify these things by giving them your actual SS#, birthdate, etc. to "verify" them? Because if you did these could have been the people who stole your identity.

When you get contact info for the security/fraud dept. of the issuing company, make sure it is legit. Ask for publicly verifiable main office contact info for the issuer, verify it online or whatever, call them and verify the contact info is correct. You could also do this first - get the debt collector to give you the main contact info, verify it, and have them give you the fraud dept. Never give your personal info to anyone until you have verified they are who they represent themselves to be.
posted by nanojath at 10:07 AM on August 25, 2007

How do I convince debt collectors of my innocence concerning an outstanding debt in my name

The previous posters have it right - it's not up to you to convince these people of your "innocence". They are not a court. It's up to them to convince you (and a court) that you are guilty, and that you owe them money. Never phone them, communicate in writing, dispute the debt, stating explicitly that you want no further phone conversations from them. They are then legally enjoined not to contact you until they can send you proof that you owe this debt (within 30 days). It has been established in many previous cases that "Proof" is not simply your name/address/SSN in a database next to a debt (either their own or one furnished by a third party). Proof requires tangible evidence of your obtaining goods, services, or money relating to this debt. Signatures, forms, bills, deeds, etc. If they persist in contacting you outside of their legal channels, they leave themselves open to statutory fines awarded to you for each infraction.
posted by meehawl at 10:38 AM on August 25, 2007

I've had run-ins with collection agencies several times when they're looking for someone else with my (very common) name. I suspect that they sometimes resort to looking through phonebooks hoping that they'll get lucky.

A certified letter stating that I am not the droid that they're looking for has always been sufficient for them to move on. If you're extra paranoid, have the letter notarized, and keep a copy along with the registered letter receipts.
posted by dws at 11:35 AM on August 25, 2007

Err.. not to break anonymity, but thank you everyone. I feel a lot calmer about the situation now. I know what my next move will be, and I feel a LOT more in control. I think. I'm desperately poring over all the links and writing out notes based on your instructions. All of which are amazing, by the way. And, I'm so happy I asked here before doing anything because every single thing I was going to do was wrong!
posted by Mael Oui at 12:33 AM on August 26, 2007

« Older Classically Influenced Metal Song?   |   Navel wars Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.