Yes, there’s such a thing as phantom debt collectors. And, yes, you can get contacted about a payday loan debt you simply don’t owe. Just ask intrepid consumer reporter Bob Sullivan, who received his very own debt collection note after simply reaching out to a payday loan company (and alleged phantom debt collector) for a story.
But if you have taken out a payday loan before and you’re genuinely confused about whether you completely addressed that debt, we have a bit of bad news: you can’t simply take the debt’s absence from your credit report as a sign you don’t have to pay.
For starters, payday lenders don’t typically report to major credit bureaus, like Experian, according to the bureau’s Director of Public Education, Rod Griffin.
In other words, there’s a chance the original loan never made it onto the traditional credit reports you can get for free each year via AnnualCreditReport.com. But that doesn’t mean you don’t owe the purported balance.
“Any debt you enter into contractually you are obligated to repay, even if it doesn’t appear in a credit report,” Griffin said, and ignoring a legitimate debt could have serious consequences.
“If you do not fulfill the terms of the contract, the payday lending company could send the unpaid amount to a collection agency, that could then report the debt to a credit reporting company,” he said. “Another possibility is that the payday lender could file a civil lawsuit to recover the debt. A judgment resulting from a civil lawsuit could also appear in a credit report.”
Something else to note: not all debt collectors report to the credit bureaus either. In fact, it’s not unheard of for some agencies to try to collect on the debt before taking that type of adverse action in an effort to get a debtor to pay. So, again, it’s totally possible for a legitimate debt collection account to simply not appear on your credit file as soon as you start getting calls.
So What’s a Confused Consumer to Do?
Whether you’re sure you owe or not, it’s important to ask whoever is contacting you for written verification of the debt they allege you owe. In fact, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires that collectors provide this notice listing the amount of money and the name of the original creditor within five days of contact. Tip-offs that you are dealing with a debt collection scammer include their refusal to provide this type or verification, threats of arrest and a request for payment via less traceable methods, like a wire transfer or prepaid card.
If you discover the debt is legitimate, it still pays to know your rights. Yes, collectors can try to get you to pay money you do owe, but there are restrictions on how they can go about this. For instance, they can’t call too early, too late, use abusive language or make dire threats. (You can learn more about your debt collection rights here.) You can always contact a consumer attorney if you think a debt collector may be stepping over the line.
Collection accounts that do appear on your credit report will affect your credit — and unpaid collections can do more damage than paid ones. (You can see how collection accounts may be affecting your credit by viewing your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.) Tips for negotiating with collectors or creditors include explaining clearly what you can afford, taking written notes whenever you talk to a collector and getting written confirmation once you agree to a plan.
If a collection account that you don’t owe makes its way onto your credit report, you can dispute its appearance with the major reporting agencies. (Here’s a guide on how to do so.)
Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund