Are There Debts in Your Name That Aren’t Yours?
After Sherell Dunn’s identity was stolen in 2011, she thought the worst was over. But more than a decade later, debt collectors began garnishing her wages by $700 per pay period for an apartment she supposedly leased in 2009 [*].
The problem? Sherell never lived in the apartment. Someone had stolen her identity and used it to skip out on paying rent.
Identity thieves are almost always financially motivated. If you become a victim, there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up with debts in your name that aren’t yours.
Over 40 million Americans were victims of identity theft and fraud in 2022, with losses of $43 billion [*].
In this guide, we’ll explain what to do if you discover an unfamiliar debt in your name, how to prove the debt isn’t yours, and how you can keep your identity and finances safe.
Before You Do Anything: Check To See If the Debt Is Legitimate
Your credit score is one of the most important components of your financial health. But unpaid debts — even debts you didn’t take on yourself — can drag down your score and impact everything from the interest rates for which you’re approved to the kinds of jobs, insurance plans, and homes that you’re able to obtain.
If you see a debt on your credit report that you don’t recognize, first make sure that the debt isn’t legitimate.
For example, you might have an old debt that resurfaces years after it first appeared. Credit reporting bureaus may also commit errors in reporting debts, such as when you have the same name as another person. Or you might have a lender operating under a different name than the one you know.
If you’re unsure whether a debt is yours or not, follow these steps:
- Look for more information. Investigate the details of the unknown debt, including the creditor's name, amount, and the account's opening date. Also look for signs that the debt was sold, which would change the name of the creditor.
- Check the debt against your records. Reference the debt based on what you were doing at the time. Perhaps you were remodeling your home, going on a trip, or planning a wedding.
- Call the creditor. Contact the original creditor or lender to verify that the debt is yours, or ask if the creditor sold the debt to a debt buyer or other company to collect.
- Verify the credit report. All legitimate credit information should come from one or all three of the major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion.
The bottom line: You can’t legally dispute legitimate debts. If you missed or are behind on payments, you’ll need to go through a separate process to repair your credit.
How To Prove a Debt Isn’t Yours (and Dispute It)
- Gather your credit reports and bank statements
- Request that debt collectors contact you via mail
- Send a debt validation letter within 30 days
- Check the reporting limits in your state
- File an official identity theft report with the FTC
- Dispute errors and fraudulent accounts with the credit bureaus
- Follow up with all impacted companies, agencies, and lenders
- If necessary, argue your claim in court
The good news is that if someone has taken out debts in your name, you can dispute them and get them removed from your credit report. Unfortunately, it’s up to you to follow this process.
Here’s how to clear your name from fraudulent debts:
1. Gather your credit reports and bank statements
The first step is to gather the relevant documents. You’ll have to prove a debt isn’t yours in two situations:
- If you find the debt yourself in an account statement or on your credit report
- If you’re notified by a debt collector or company about the debt
In both cases, you’ll want to gather as much evidence as possible about your debts and payments. These documents may provide guidance during your dispute. Or, they might show that you never made any payments to the alleged creditor.
Here are some steps you can take to find the information you need:
- Get a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com. Until the end of 2023, you can request one free credit report per week from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus.
- Check for unrecognized accounts, missed payments, incorrect personal information, or hard inquiries that you didn’t request. All these are signs of identity fraud and can potentially be disputed.
- Check your bank and credit card statements. Unrecognized credit card debt is another warning sign of identity theft. Check your online accounts or paper statements for charges you don’t recognize.
2. Request that debt collectors contact you via mail
Once you’ve gathered the relevant information, ask the creditor or debt collection agency to contact you by mail with more information about the debt. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), creditors must provide proof that the debt is legitimate and that you owe it.
Requesting this information via written communication creates a paper trail and makes tracking your communication with the debt collector easier. It also starts a timer for the debt dispute process.
3. Send a debt verification letter within 30 days
When a debt collector or agency contacts you about an unpaid debt, they’re required by federal law to provide proof of the debt. This includes:
- The name of the original creditor
- The amount of the debt
- 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
If a debt collector doesn’t provide that information on the first contact (or can’t), you can send a written request to the collector for more information. This is known as a debt verification letter. Be sure to date your dispute letter and make a copy. It’s also a good idea to send your letter via certified mail with a return receipt.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has several sample letter templates that can show you what to include.
4. Check the reporting limits and statute of limitations in your state
The statute of limitations is the amount of time during which a debt collector can sue you in its attempts to collect on a debt. However, this time limit may vary by state as well as the type of debt. In some states, the time limit is between three and six years. In others, 10 years or more can elapse before the statute of limitations passes.
You can find information on your state’s statute of limitations in several places:
- Contact your state Attorney General’s office. These organizations counsel state government agencies and protect the public interest.
- Look for your state consumer protection office. Generally, this office can accept complaints, file civil cases, and provide information about avoiding scams.
- Contact an attorney. An attorney can offer guidance and help defend your case in court if necessary.
Also, be aware that certain actions can restart the statute of limitations. For example, making a payment or acknowledging the debt can restart the timer.
5. File an official identity theft report with the FTC
Once you know that the debt is legitimate, is within the statute of limitations, and wasn’t taken out by you, you can confidently assert that you’re the victim of identity theft.
At this point, you should take steps to protect your identity — including filing an official identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov, or by calling 1-877-438-4338.
An FTC identity theft report is your official proof that your identity was stolen, and can be used to dispute fraudulent charges or crimes that were committed using your identity.
6. Dispute errors and fraudulent accounts with the credit bureaus
With an identity theft affidavit in hand, you can now dispute the fraudulent charges with the credit bureaus, creditors, and other relevant companies.
This can be a lengthy and frustrating process, as the credit bureaus provide your information to other companies. For example, if your credit report shows debt that doesn’t belong to you, the credit bureaus and the businesses supplying the information about the debt must correct the error. And they must do that for free.
Generally, you can dispute these errors by filling out a form and mailing it to each agency. You can find mailing addresses on the FTC’s website [*].
💡 Related: How To Dispute a Credit Card Charge →
7. Follow up with all impacted companies, agencies, and lenders
There are several follow-up steps to take when you have an unrecognized debt:
- Notify your bank and credit card companies about the unrecognized debt. You may need to get new card and account numbers to protect yourself from further fraudulent activity.
- Report fraudulent activity to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is especially important if you believe someone has gotten a hold of your Social Security Number (SSN). You can also contact the Social Security Administration (SSA), which can monitor your Social Security Number for fraudulent activity.
- Contact your local police department. Ask for a copy of the police report, which you can use to help clear your credit report.
By taking these steps, you can ensure that all of the relevant companies and organizations are aware of the issue and will note it in their records.
8. If necessary, argue your claim in court
If you still have trouble removing debt from your credit report, you may need to argue it in court. In this case, both you and the creditor or debt collector must be prepared to make a case. For instance, the creditor must prove that:
- They own the debt
- You are the one who owes them money
- The amount you owe is correct
Be sure to bring all supporting evidence to court, and consider hiring an attorney to provide legal advice and help you make your case.
Did Someone Take Out Debt in Your Name? Here’s What To Do
If you find debts in your name that aren’t yours, you might be the victim of identity theft. This could be a warning sign of even worse fraud or crimes to come.
Therefore, it’s important to be proactive and take steps to secure your identity and credit now, as well as protect yourself from future fraud:
- Freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus. This stops scammers from taking out more debts in your name by limiting access to your credit report until you unfreeze (or “thaw”) it. To freeze your credit, you’ll need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually.
- File an official identity theft report with the FTC. An official FTC identity theft affidavit helps prove to businesses that someone stole your identity.
- File a complaint with the CFPB. Contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tell them about the situation. You can either use the CFPB’s complaint form or call the bureau at (855) 411-2372.
- Don’t share personal information over the phone or via email. This might include personal, financial, or health information. Never share this information unless it is needed for a specific reason.
- Cancel and change your bank account, debit, and credit card numbers. Call your bank’s fraud department and explain the situation. They’ll cancel your accounts and cards and set you up with new ones.
- Remove hard inquiries. If you’ve been the victim of identity theft, you may have extra hard inquiries on your credit report. It may help to remove hard inquiries, as this can improve your credit score.
- Update your online passwords and enable 2FA. Use strong, unique passwords for every account. When possible, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) to add an extra layer of security to your accounts. After entering your password, you must also enter a code, which may be sent to your phone or require you to use an authenticator app (which is a more secure option).
- Lock your phone’s SIM with your carrier. Scammers use SIM swapping scams to take control of your phone number and intercept fraud alerts from your bank. By locking your SIM card with your carrier, anyone who tries to take control of your phone number will need a special PIN that only you know.
- Limit what you carry. Don’t carry things like your Social Security or Medicare cards unless you know you will need them.
- Pull your credit reports, and monitor for signs of fraud. Look for any debts or accounts that you don’t recognize. You can also sign up for Aura’s credit monitoring solution, which actively watches for threats and alerts you if any arise. In addition, Aura lets you instantly lock your Experian credit report with just one click to stop unwanted inquiries into your credit history.
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Providers such as Aura monitor your accounts and alert you if anything suspicious is detected. Credit protection services can also help shield you from identity theft.
How Long Do You Have To Dispute a Debt That Isn’t Yours?
As outlined in the FDCPA, you have 30 days from receiving a written debt validation notice to dispute a debt. Here’s how the process generally works:
- A debt collector sends you a written debt collection letter within five days of first contacting you. The notice must include the debt amount, the creditor's name, and a statement of your rights.
- If you don’t think the debt is yours, you can send a dispute letter to the debt collector within 30 days of receiving the validation notice. As soon as the debt collector or agency receives your written notice, they must cease collection efforts until they can prove the debt is yours.
- If you fail to send a dispute letter within 30 days, the debt collector will assume the debt is yours. It may be possible to dispute the debt later. However, in this case, the debt collector may continue to contact you while investigating the matter.
While this is the general timeline for disputing a debt, it may vary depending on when and how the debt collector contacted you. The statute of limitations also applies, which varies by state.
If you’re unsure how things will work in your situation, it’s best to contact a legal professional.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Get Stuck Paying a Scammer’s Debts
If you discover a debt that isn’t yours, this doesn’t mean you must pay it. Instead, you can dispute it and prove to creditors and debt collectors that the debt doesn’t belong to you.
But remember: an unrecognized debt is more than an annoyance — it’s a clear warning sign of identity theft.
Signing up for Aura is one of the best ways to safeguard yourself and your family against scammers.
Aura’s award-winning identity theft protection solution includes three-bureau credit monitoring with the industry’s fastest fraud alerts, powerful digital security tools to keep your data safe, 24/7 U.S.-based fraud resolution support, and a $1 million insurance policy covering eligible losses due to identity theft for every adult member on your Aura plan.