Editorial Policy

How to Hunt Down an Old Debt

Erica Sandberg

May 10, 2013

QDear Erica,

I had some health problems about a year ago that resulted in tons of bills at multiple health care facilities. I thought I paid them, but I guess I missed one because my old roommate got a call on the phone at the old place. She told them I didn't live there anymore, and they asked her for a number they can reach me at. My roommate told them no and hung up. So can debt collectors ask other people for information about me? Also, how can I track down that debt to find out how much it is and how I can pay? I don't even know which doctor's office the bill is from or who even is trying to collect it now. — Tracy

AHi Tracy,

I feel your pain. Dealing with the influx of bills that practitioners send soon — and long — after a medical issue has been resolved can be ridiculously difficult. They never seem to stop coming!

OK, so at least one of your medical bills slipped through the cracks and was sent to a collection agency. Here's what to do to stop the calls (both to you and your friends) and pay up.Ask Erica

At least one of collectors on your tail doesn't know how to find you, so it's only natural that they try your last known residence. They certainly can give that number a ring, but must use discretion when talking to anyone but you about your debt. Asking for your current contact information is legal, but explaining that you owe them money is not. Talking in a gruff voice is fine. Swearing or threatening your roommate (or you) is also prohibited.

What you need to do now is reach out to the collectors so they can stop the pursuit. You've got a debt to pay and it's ruining your credit. You may even get sued for the balance due.

To find out how much — and who — you owe, you have a few options:

  1. Have your friend forward your number to the collector if he or she calls again, or ask her to write their number down so you can call them.
  2. Call the billing departments of all the facilities where you received treatment and ask which collection agency they sold the account to. The problem you may encounter, though, is that the first collector may have already sold it to another, and you'll be spending a lot of time on the phone.
  3. Check your credit report. Evidence of the debt with the name of the last collection company that held it will be listed. The phone number won't be on it, but you can conduct an online search by the name.

Before establishing contact with collectors, know that you do have clear-cut rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) governs the way third-party collection companies conduct business. Per federal law, the people who work for them must behave in certain ways. Restrictions may be more intense under your state's laws.

For example, collectors can call you at home or at work, but they cannot harass you. Harassment is usually perceived as more than once per day. You can tell collectors (by phone or in writing) not to call at your place of employment if it's jeopardizing your job and ask them to use another number. They must honor this request, but cutting off communication may cause them to escalate and file a lawsuit against you. Collectors also can't call before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Weekends and holidays are not exempt, however, so don't be surprised if you hear their melodious voices on Sundays or on Christmas. Try not to fault them for that — I can't imagine it's their ideal shift either.

You can avoid much of this trouble by being ready to pay immediately. Start by weighing whether to pay in full or negotiate a settlement for a lesser amount. Sending the full sum is better for your credit report, as it will be noted as paid in full. Settlement is better for preserving your cash. If you don't have all the cash at once, ask if they'll accept it in a few installments.

Do this now, Tracy. Having debt collectors call can be stress-inducing and embarrassing — especially if other people are picking up the phone.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.