If you have a common name, watch out. You could get "tagged" with someone else's debt.
Debt tagging is the term used in the collections field for a situation in which an innocent consumer is mistakenly blamed for someone else's overdue debt, usually because of a similarity in names or some other type of mix-up.
But even though it's a mistake, the person who is tagged can go through a lot of trouble to clear his or her name.
It happened to Michael Hughes, a retiree in Virginia, who suddenly started getting calls from collection agents telling him he owed $12,000. Hughes, who had always been financially cautious, knew it could not have been him.
"I tried to tell them that they had the wrong Mike Hughes," he said. "They didn't care. They let me know that if I didn't pay the debt I'd be in big trouble."
The problem of debt tagging has gotten worse in recent years because banks and credit card companies are increasingly selling debt for pennies on the dollar.
"This rarely happens when the original credit issuer is doing the collecting," said Bill Bartmann, president of CFS II, a collection company headquartered in Tulsa, Okla. "But when debt gets sold, it's like that old game of telephone."
"You start out with all the information about the person who owes the money, but the file gets transferred and something gets lost or misinterpreted. Then the debt is sold again and again, and the problem is magnified."
You're most likely to be a victim of debt tagging when you have a common name, said Adam Levin, president of Identity Theft 911, which specializes in identity theft resolution services. In some cases, the name and an address -- or perhaps an old cell phone number -- are all that a collection agent has to go by.
"Maybe you have a new cell phone number that used to be assigned to somebody who didn't pay their bills," Levin said. "Some of the [collection agents] don't care whether they've confused you with someone else. They have a live fish on the line, and they're going to pressure you to pay."
It's important to know that debtors have rights. Those rights also extend to those who have been wrongly tagged with a debt.
The most important of these rights, in this situation, is that you're legally entitled to detailed information about the debt you supposedly owe.
"The first thing to do is to ask for verification of the debt," Bartmann said.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires the collection company to provide you with the precise amount owed, the company to which it's owed and information about when the debt was incurred. You can ask for the original loan application, a payment history and other documentation.
Some collection agents will attempt to send an affidavit that simply states you owe the debt, Bartmann said. But in these days of robo-signing, affidavits are not as compelling evidence of a debt as they once were.
Demand to see written proof that this debt is yours and when it originated, he suggested. Keep as much as possible of your communications with the collection company in writing so that if you end up in court you'll have documentation.
If you receive information about the debt and know it isn't yours, you may dispute it by sending the collection company a written letter, explaining that while your name is Jane Young, you are not the same Jane Young who owes $10,000 to Sears, for example. It's helpful to include the discrepancies between the real you and the person who took out this debt.
In Hughes' case, he had a different middle initial, street address and Social Security number. The only similarity, besides the first and last names, was that the other Michael Hughes worked at the same tire manufacturing company as the mistaken Hughes.
"A blind person could see that I was not the same person," Hughes said. "But they said they knew I was lying and I had to go ahead and pay my bills."
Hughes didn't bother with the letter once he realized that the real debtor was a former colleague. He got the real debtor's phone number and gave it to the collection agent. That stopped the phone calls and even caused the collection agency to acknowledge its error.
If you get debt tagged by mistake, your dispute letter to the collection agency should say you do not want to be contacted again. Also insist that the erroneous debt not be included in your credit file, and, if it's already there, the collection agency should have it removed.
Then be sure to check your credit reports later to make sure it's not there. You have the right to get all three of your credit reports, once every 12 months, for free. Go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com -- the only government-authorized site for the free credit reports -- to get them.