Dear Liz: I just got a letter from a collection agency saying I owe a phone carrier $498 for an ISDN line I thought I had terminated two years ago. I had no idea about this outstanding amount because we moved and the carrier didn’t get my forwarding address. I can’t find any hard evidence that I closed the account, and so much was going on then (I was expecting our first child, my father was dying and our landlord decided to sell the apartment) that I’m terrified I could have screwed up. We are otherwise always responsible with money. I’ve been too scared to check my credit reports, but I dread to think what this has done to my credit scores. I’m in a position to pay in full immediately, but I want to try to have this expunged from my credit reports if I can do so. My other concern is that if Verizon doesn’t think I terminated the account, could it have been billing me all this time? Is it the tip of the iceberg?
Answer: The chances are slim the carrier continued to bill you after turning this account over to collections. So your first assignment is to pull your head out of the sand and see whether this collection account has appeared on your credit reports. Torturing yourself with worry about what’s happening to your credit is worse than simply knowing. Go find out.
Once you do, and you realize you’re still breathing, you can get started on the next steps.
Understand that you may well not owe this debt. Plenty of people have been dunned for accounts that were properly closed and paid in full. That’s why it’s so important to hang on to your last statement, showing a zero balance, from any creditor, utility or other biller — it can quickly short-circuit bogus debt collection efforts.
You’re not out of ammunition because you don’t have your last statement, however. Federal law requires the collector to provide proof, once you ask for it, that this is actually your debt. Make your request in writing and send it certified mail, return receipt requested. If the collector can’t provide such proof, it’s supposed to stop collection attempts and delete any mention of the debt from your credit reports.
If the debt is yours, you can begin negotiations to either delete it from your credit reports or prevent it from showing up, if the collector has yet to report it. Get the collector’s promise in writing before you send any money.