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Ask Sid

You Don't Owe Debt Collectors Your Personal Information

Q. I keep getting harassing phone calls from a collection agency for a debt that isn't even mine. They say they won't stop calling unless I give them my Social Security number. Should I?

A. Absolutely not. Debt collectors often ask for Social Security numbers, birth dates or other personal information to ensure they have reached the correct debtor. The problem is, scammers also pose as debt collectors in an attempt to get personal info from folks they call, and many victims provide it in an attempt to prove a debt isn't theirs.

A better response: Have the caller tell you the Social Security number or other information that's on file for the debt, so you can verify whether it's yours or not. Callers who won't provide this may be identity thieves.

In your case, the caller was a legitimate collector—Dell Financial Services, the financing division of the computer manufacturer. You were told your number was being called because it previously belonged to the real debtor, whose name has no similarity to yours.

Although the "wrong party" calls should have stopped within 24 hours, Dell spokesperson David Frink says they continued for weeks because the employees on your case mishandled it. He offered assurances you won't be bothered again.

Here's advice for anyone getting repeated debt collection calls, whether or not they're about a legitimate debt.

  • Verify the debt by asking for the full name, address and at least the last four digits of the Social Security number on the account. Get the name, address, phone number of the company calling and the name of the collection operation's manager.

  • Always request that written proof of the reported debt be sent to you.

  • Send a registered letter (with "return receipt" delivery notification) to the agency saying you do not want to be called again. That won't remove the debt, but once the letter is received, third-party collectors (companies hired by others to collect a debt) may not contact you again with two exceptions: to tell you there will be no further contact, or to let you know that they or the creditor intends to take a specific action, such as filing a lawsuit. Continued phone calls after this letter is received subject violators to a $1,000 fine.

  • If the collector is also the originator of the debt, contact your state attorney general's office or consumer services agency or provide it a copy of your letter. In some states, "first-party" debt collectors are regulated by the state. For more information about your rights when dealing with debt collectors, see this Federal Trade Commission fact sheet.

Ask Sid a question about scams, deals and other consumer issues.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).

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