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It may be something you fear when checking your credit reports — discovering an item that’s been turned over to a debt collector. Especially if it’s an old item, and one you don’t even remember. Where do you start?

A reader, Marci, encountered this exact problem when she discovered a couple of unpaid bills on her credit report. She’d like to find out more about them but doesn’t know how to go about it:

I just had my credit checked and have two unpaid medical bills listed from 4 years ago. The name of the medical facility is not listed. I have no record or memory of where these are from. Who can I contact that can give me information on these?

Medical bills are one of the most common sources of collection accounts on credit reports. But privacy laws designed to protect consumers can make tracking down information on these debts difficult.

Specifically, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the law that regulates credit reporting agencies and the companies that furnish information to them, restricts the information about medical bills that appear on credit reports. Specifically, they prohibit information on credit reports that might reveal what type of medical treatment a consumer received.  Thus, your credit report won’t have the name of any treatment facility that might, by its very name, reveal or suggest a medical condition. Did you visit an eye clinic? A sleep lab? A cancer treatment center? Your credit report won’t say.

So Marci will need to contact the collection agency that is reporting the collection account. She should simply state that she doesn’t recognize the bill and ask for written verification of the debt. She should give them enough information about herself (last four digits of her Social Security number, for example) for them to be confident they’re releasing the information to the right person.

Being contacted by Marci may spark their interest in trying to collect from her, so she should be prepared to stick to her request for written information, and when she receives it she can figure out how to deal with the debt. If she doesn’t think the bill belongs to her, or if there was a billing problem that led to the account being placed for collection, she may need to contact the original provider to try to straighten it out. This guide explains common myths about medical bills and credit reports.

Checking your credit report, as Marci did, is a good habit to develop, particularly because what you don’t know can hurt you. In her case, not paying a bill probably lowered her credit score. By law, you are entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. You can also keep an eye on your credit data with Credit.com. It’s free, and it can show you how creditors see you. An unexpected change could also alert you to possible fraud or identity theft — and the sooner you know, the easier it will be to limit the damage.

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