It’s called “Zombie Debt.”
Essentially, it’s debt that has been “raised from the dead.”
It can happen around Halloween or any other time of the year.
“Some people owe a lot of money to a lot of organizations and they don’t keep good records,” says Stephanie Garland states “They get something in the mail saying they owe money so they go ahead and pay it,” she states.
But Zombie Debt can happen even if you don’t owe any money at all.
When a person doesn’t pay a debt, the lender will take action – by phone, letter, or even a court case – to collect the money they are owed. In some cases, though, the debtor simply can’t pay or can’t be found. In other cases, the debtor files for bankruptcy and, depending on the kind of debt owed, the debt may be put on hold, renegotiated or discharged completely.
Some of the most common scenarios of zombie debt are the following:
- Unpaid debts that are beyond the statute of limitations when you can be taken to court for payment
- Unpaid debts you owe but forgot about
- Unpaid debts wiped out with bankruptcy
- Debts you already settled with the creditor
- Fraudulent charges from identity theft
- Fake debts “creditors” claim you owe as part of a scam
How does debt come back to life?
Creditors often remove old debt from their ledgers and sell it to third-party collectors. In some cases, the debts are legitimate, but in other cases they aren’t. When debts are sold and re-sold, the records may be incomplete or inaccurate. Think of it as a game of “telephone.” The more times a debt is passed around, the more chance that the related information is wrong.
When Debt Collectors Call
The legal treatment of old debt will depend on where you live in and the type of debt in question. In most areas, debt collectors are not allowed to sue you for old debt if the statute of limitations has expired, but they are still allowed to contact you and ask you to pay off the old debt. Check out this list the statue of limitations for each U.S. state and Canadian province.
However, if you begin making payments or acknowledge the debt in some way, you may restore the collection agency’s legal right to take the matter to court. Never agree to making a payment on a debt you aren’t sure about, even if the collection agency puts pressure on you. Caution is needed as you decide how to proceed.
The best way to start is by doing a thorough investigation. Search through your old records to find bank statements and notices of payment. Gather as many facts as possible about the debt in question. Next, within 35 days of initial contact and without acknowledging the debt is yours, ask the creditor for a debt validation letter. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires the debt collection agency to provide you with written proof of the debt’s validity or a judgement against you, as well as the name and address of the original creditor if the debt was resold. Once you receive this information, you should be able to determine if the debt is really yours and if it still needs to be paid.
If you determine the debt was yours, but you already paid it, write a letter to the collections agency and demand that they cease contact. Include proof of your payment if you have it. The collections agency is legally required to stop contacting you under the FDCPA.
If you determine the debt is not yours or is invalid, write a letter challenging its validity and where applicable, include any proof you may have.
If you determine you do owe the funds and you can pay the debt, resolve the issue by first getting a payment agreement in writing and then eliminating your unresolved debt.
If you determine you do owe the funds, but you can’t pay the debt, you can pursue debt relief through bankruptcy or credit counseling.
When deciding what route to take, keep in mind that once a debt is past the statute of limitations, collectors can no longer sue you to get payment. In addition, the FDCPA stipulates that any unpaid debts should be removed from a person’s credit score after seven years. If you decide to begin paying or pay in full an old debt, it could restart the statute of limitations and affect your credit.
For more useful information, see the . If you need to contact a collection agency to dispute a debt, request a debt validation letter or to ask the collection agency to cease contact, you can use these templates on Consumer.gov.
Remember that while most debt collection agencies are legitimate, a few are nothing more than a front for con artists. For more information on how to avoid falling prey to their schemes, visit BBB.org/AvoidScams. If you’ve been targeted by a debt collection scam, be sure to report it to BBB.org/ScamTracker.