Are Debt Collectors Contacting You About Debts That Aren’t Yours?
When Heidi Herrington received a letter from the Small Business Administration (SBA), she didn’t expect to be told that she had just 13 days to pay back a $5,000 COVID-19 EIDL loan. Why? Because she’d never taken out the loan in the first place [*].
Since losing her passport four years ago, Heidi has continually dealt with scammers attempting to accrue debts in her name. And she’s not alone.
Over 42 million Americans were victims of identity theft and fraud in 2022, amounting to combined losses of more than $52 billion [*].
The problem of identity thieves creating fraudulent debts isn't going anywhere — with merchants expected to pay over $100 billion in credit card disputes and chargebacks in 2023 [*].
Whether you’re the victim of fraud, identity theft, or an accounting error, discovering debt in your name that isn't yours can be confusing and frightening.
In this guide, we’ll explain how you could end up with debts in your name (that aren’t yours) and how to dispute them and protect your credit.
How Did Someone Take Out Debts or Loans in Your Name?
Unfortunately, most people won’t realize they are victims of identity theft until a debt collection agency contacts them. If you don’t protect your data with credit monitoring, it’s easy for fraudsters to infiltrate your financial life.
But identity theft and fraud aren’t the only reasons why you could discover debts in your name that aren’t yours.
Here are seven ways that you could end up with someone else’s debt in your name:
- Your identity was stolen. Over nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year [*]. Identity thieves can find out basic personal information — such as your name, address, and Social Security number (SSN) — to create fake identities and take out fraudulent lines of credit.
- A family member or friend took out debts in your name. Sometimes, the people closest to you present the greatest threats of fraud. A sibling or parent with easy access to your mail and identity documents could exploit you for years before being caught.
- You were the victim of a phishing attack. Cybercriminals send malicious links or attachments in emails and text messages to trick you into sharing your sensitive information on fake websites.
- Someone sold a bad or fake debt. Debt buyers sometimes purchase fake or invalid debts, which can lead to collection agencies pursuing you for debts that aren't yours.
- Joint debts. If you share a joint bank account or co-sign a loan with someone, creditors could hold you responsible for the other person’s debt if they fail to make payments.
- You signed as a guarantor for someone's loan. As with joint accounts, you will be responsible for outstanding repayments if you agree to act as a guarantor for someone who defaults on their loan.
- Someone has power of attorney for your accounts. If you grant someone legal authority over your financial affairs, they could abuse their position to take out credit cards or create debt in your name.
How To Dispute a Debt in Your Name That Isn’t Yours
- Verify that the debt collector is legitimate
- Insist that debt collectors contact you via mail
- Check your credit report to ensure that the debt isn’t valid
- Send a “debt validation letter” within 30 days
- Request that the debt collectors stop contacting you
- If they continue, file a complaint with the CFPB and FTC
- Remove fraudulent charges from your credit file
- Freeze your credit with all three bureaus
- Keep records of all communication (in case the collectors sue)
- Consider signing up for credit monitoring
It can be stressful to discover debt in your name that you know isn’t yours. But with a few steps, you can help verify the debt, remove fraudulent charges, and repair your credit.
Here’s what to do if you want to dispute a debt:
1. Verify that the debt collector is legitimate
Before paying or disputing a debt, you need to make sure that you’re not dealing with a debt collector scammer in disguise.
Fraudsters posing as debt collectors often threaten victims if they don’t pay immediately. For example, a con artist might say you will lose your driver’s license, have to pay fines, or even face jail time. Before panicking and giving in to any demands, you should confirm that the people on your phone or doorstep are legitimate.
How to tell if a debt collector isn’t legitimate:
- The collector or agency calls you repeatedly and threatens you. Scammers try to create a sense of urgency to get you to pay for bad debts without thinking. If someone uses aggressive language or threatens you with violence or fines, you’re not dealing with a legitimate debt collector.
- Pressures you to pay by prepaid card or cryptocurrency. Scammers attempt to get people to pay by prepaid cards or money transfers, as these methods are harder to trace — making it easier for criminals to get away with the money.
- They refuse to disclose details. Real debt collectors who represent reputable companies can share website information, so you can contact the head office or read reviews. If anyone refuses to talk about their identity or company (or won’t give you their name, address, and phone number), these are red flags.
- They contact you at strange hours. By law, debt collectors are prohibited from contacting you before 8 a.m or after 9 p.m. They also can’t contact you at your place of work, if you’ve informed them that you can’t receive personal calls while at work.
2. Insist that debt collectors contact you via mail
Any debt collector who contacts you claiming that you owe payment is required by law to tell you specific information about the debt. If you are unfamiliar with the claims they're making, you can request official written confirmation of the matter before taking any next steps.
Here’s what to do:
First, request that the debt collection agency contact you only through written communication. This step helps create a paper trail and ensures that any information exchanged is consistent and documented.
Then, ask for full information about the debt. By law, debt collectors must confirm the following:
- The name of the original creditor
- The amount owed
- Your right to dispute the debt within 30 days
- That they will provide verification of the debt if you dispute the debt in writing within 30 days
- That they will assume the debt is valid if you don’t dispute it within 30 days
- That they will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor if you request this information within 30 days
Finally, note the date of your request. If debt collectors don’t provide all of the above information when they first contact you, they must send a written notice detailing the information within five days.
💡 Related: How To Prove a Debt Isn't Yours (and Dispute It) →
3. Check your credit report to ensure that the debt isn’t valid
You might not recognize a debt immediately, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s fraudulent.
If you have multiple businesses, a large estate, or haven’t been keeping up with your credit report, it’s easy to lose track of all your financial responsibilities. You can check if a debt is valid by reviewing your credit reports.
Here’s how to check if a debt is valid:
- Examine your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can order a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Review your credit reports and note any unfamiliar activity, accounts, or hard inquiries.
- Review your financial records. Compare the debt collector's information with your bills, statements, and other direct debit agreements. Make sure it’s not from a joint account, guarantor loan, or rental agreement.
- Check the statute of limitations. Creditors or debt collectors have a limited period of time to file lawsuits to recover a debt. Even if a debt is real, it may be invalid if it is too old. You can verify if the debt is within the statute of limitations by contacting your state attorney general’s office.
💡 Related: Are Free Credit Scores Safe? How To Avoid Credit Score Scams →
4. Send a “debt validation letter” within 30 days
If you believe a debt is not yours, you only have a limited time frame in which to get all the information and lodge a dispute. It’s important to send a debt validation letter within 30 days of receiving the initial contact from the collection agency.
Follow these steps when sending a debt validation letter:
- Write a letter requesting proof of the debt. All debt collection agencies are legally obliged to provide validation information about the debt — including amounts, dates, and original creditor information. If this hasn’t already been given to you, you can officially request this proof in your letter.
- Use sample letters as a guide. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides sample letters for various situations. You can base your request on these sample letters.
- Send your letter by certified mail within 30 days. Make sure to pay for tracked mail with proof of sending date and a return receipt. Also, keep a copy of any letters that you send. Maintaining good records of communications can help you later with any legal disputes.
5. Request that the debt collectors stop contacting you
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was “designed to eliminate abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices.” This federal law gives you the right to request that debt collectors cease communication [*].
To exercise your rights under the FDCPA, follow these steps:
- Write a cease-and-desist letter. You can check the CFPB for sample letters using the link above. In your letter, emphasize that you want the agency to "stop contact" with you. You can insist that "all further contact should be through my attorney."
- Send the letter via certified mail with a return receipt. With the return receipt, you’ll have proof that the agency received your letter. As always, keep copies in case you or your attorney needs proof later.
6. If they continue, file a complaint with the CFPB and FTC
Once you inform debt collectors that you want them to stop all communications immediately, they may only contact you after that to serve you with a lawsuit. If the collector persists, file a complaint.
Here's how to report abusive debt collectors:
- Gather proof that the agency is violating your rights. You can include a copy of the dated letter proving you requested an end to communications, plus any screenshots of messages, call logs, or mail that shows the debt collector has ignored your request.
- Report the abuse to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If you believe you’re dealing with an abusive debt collector or potential scam artist, report the situation to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
- Submit a complaint to the CFPB. If you have an issue with a financial company, product, or service, you can file a report on the CFPB website. Most companies respond within 15 days.
💡 Related: How To Dispute a Credit Card Charge in 2023 →
7. Remove fraudulent charges from your credit file
It's crucial to remove inaccurate debts from your credit report to maintain a good credit score and get credit when you need it most. In one example, a Santander customer was denied a mortgage after fraudsters took out a nearly $20,000 loan in his name and defaulted on repayments [*].
Here’s how to remove fraudulent debts from your credit report:
- Review your credit reports for errors. First, look for any and all potential instances of fraud or inaccurate reporting. This includes unfamiliar transactions, such as payment or balance errors, misspelled names, or account status issues.
- Write a credit dispute letter. Include details about all the errors you believe need to be corrected. Also, explain your reasoning, and provide supporting documents.
- Send your credit dispute letters to the credit reporting bureaus by mail. Keep copies of the letters, and get return receipts. The bureaus must investigate within 30 days of receiving your letter.
💡 Related: The 7 Best Credit Monitoring Apps of 2023 (How To Choose) →
8. Freeze your credit with all three bureaus
A credit freeze secures your credit file to prevent fraud. If you suspect your personal information is compromised, this precautionary measure will protect your credit score by stopping scammers from opening unauthorized accounts in your name.
Here’s how to freeze your credit:
- Contact each of the three bureaus to request a credit freeze. You must contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually — then provide your name, address, date of birth, and SSN. We've provided contact information for the three credit bureaus below.
- Keep the PIN safe. When you initiate a credit freeze, the bureaus will give you a unique PIN. It's essential to keep this code secret — you will need it to "thaw" the account later.
- Remember, nobody can access your credit file. Even genuine lenders won’t be able to see your credit report. If you wish to get a loan or credit card, you must remove the credit freeze first.
9. Keep records of all communications in case the collectors sue
If an agency files a lawsuit, well-kept records of communications with debt collectors will help your attorney build a strong case to protect you.
How to keep records of contact with debt collectors:
- Store copies of all written communication in a safe place. You should retain copies of letters and return receipts to prove what you sent, and also keep the originals of any mail from the debt collection agency. Another good idea is to save screenshots of messages in a cloud storage folder.
- Write a short call summary after any phone calls. Make a note of the date, agent names, account numbers, and information about the debt. Also, detail any suspicious behavior or aggressive language that the agent used.
- Record calls when someone visits your home. In some states, you must get permission from the debt collector to record a conversation. Bonafide agents should not have any objections. But if they refuse, it's best to end the conversation and request that they only contact you in writing [*].
💡 Related: How To Tell If Someone Is Scamming You Online (Real Examples) →
10. Consider signing up for credit monitoring
Around 1 in 15 people worldwide fall prey to identity theft schemes — and Americans are the most likely victims [*]. Dedicated identity protection services help safeguard your credit reports, financial accounts, and personal information. With these services, there’s less risk of scammers racking up debts in your name.
How to choose an identity theft protection provider:
- Review the leading services. You can read our post about the best identity protection companies in 2023 to find the right one for your needs.
- Think about advanced protection features. The best providers include Dark Web monitoring, SSN monitoring, substantial identity theft insurance, and dedicated support with fraud resolution.
- Prioritize Safe Browsing. When you sign up for a service that offers site blockers, parental controls, and antivirus software, you can keep your entire family safe — from kids on gaming platforms to elderly adults who aren’t tech-savvy online.
How To Prove a Debt Isn’t Yours
If you’re certain that a debt in your name is either fraudulent or a mistake, it’s time to take action.
Here’s what to do to prove the debt isn’t yours:
- Get the details from the debt collector. In the best-case scenario, the collection agency isn’t able to supply the relevant information in writing and will have to stop contacting you about the debt. But if the agency shares the information, the onus is on you to prove the debt isn’t your responsibility.
- Contact the original creditor for details. You can contact the original creditor and request copies of any signed contracts or documentation proving the debt belongs to someone else.
- Look for other signs of identity theft. If you believe scammers are targeting you with bogus debt claims, look for other signs of fraud. Check your credit reports, statements, and mail for any other suspicious activity. Make copies of all your proof, and store the originals in a safe place.
- Compile all your evidence to prove the fraud. By collecting supporting documents — such as bank statements, receipts, payment confirmations, and communication records — you can build a strong case to prove your innocence.
- File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). After compiling your evidence, you can lodge an official Identity Theft report at IdentityTheft.gov. The FTC will provide a recovery plan and investigate your claims.
- Inform local law enforcement. When you file a police report, local authorities can pursue the perpetrators — especially if you believe the bogus debt collectors are targeting other people in the area. Bring your FTC affidavit and supporting documents to help with investigations.
- Contact the three bureaus individually to report the fraud and cancel the debts. You can provide your FTC report and police report as evidence. Ask the agencies and lenders to revoke the debts in your name and then send you confirmation letters verifying that they have complied with your request.
💡 Related: How To Write a Credit Dispute Letter (and Repair Your Credit) →
How Long Do You Have To Dispute a Debt That Isn’t Yours?
An account in collection status will be recorded on your credit report for seven years [*]. As soon as you spot the warning signs, you should take action to limit the damage to your credit score, savings, and financial reputation.
How long you have to dispute debts that aren’t yours will depend on how the debtor first contacted you.
- If a debt collector contacts you by phone and provides you with the entire "validation information" about the debt, you have 30 days to dispute the debt. You must submit your dispute in writing. In the meantime, the debt collector must cease all collection activity.
- If a debt collector contacts you by sending a debt collection letter that includes the mandatory validation information, you have 30 days from the date of the initial letter to submit a written dispute [*].
Remember: If debt collectors can’t send you the required information about a debt in your name, they can’t pursue it. Learn more about your rights from the CFPB →
The Bottom Line: Stop Bad Debts From Ruining Your Credit
Bad debts are among the biggest warning signs of identity theft. Without a vigilant approach to managing your finances, it’s easy for fraudulent activity to go unnoticed.
Consider a proactive approach to protect yourself, including:
- Reviewing your credit reports for signs of fraud. You can get a free copy from each bureau once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Placing a credit lock or credit freeze. These measures prevent unauthorized individuals from opening new accounts in your name.
- Creating strong, unique passwords for every account. With complex login credentials, it’s harder for hackers to take over your accounts.
- Using Safe Browsing tools. Features like a password manager, a virtual private network (VPN), and antivirus software make it harder for criminals and scammers to steal personal information.
- Learning more about phishing. You can avoid common scams by getting familiar with the signs of a phishing email, like typos and suspicious links.
Ultimately, the best way to stay safe from scammers is to sign up for a leading digital security provider.
Aura is an award-winning identity theft protection solution — offering three-bureau credit monitoring and the industry’s fastest and most reliable alerts. All Aura plans come with powerful internet security tools, including a VPN and antivirus software.
If disaster strikes, every adult on your plan is covered by up to $1 million in insurance for eligible losses due to identity theft. Plus, Aura’s U.S.-based team of White Glove Fraud Resolution Specialists is available 24/7, ready to walk you through the process of disputing debts and recovering from the impact of identity fraud.