Friday, September 2, 2011

Bill Collection Letters to Someone Else – With Your Address

A letter from a bill collector isn't something you ever want to see nestled between your phone bill and the pizza coupons when you check the mail – but if the collection letter has your address and someone else's name, you can breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

Not worrying about being hounded by bill collectors is one thing, dealing with the repetitive "junk mail" they're sending to someone else who they apparently think lives in your home is quite another.

Of course, when you receive something that looks like a collection letter, you open it – especially if its not addressed to you. You're curious. It's okay, we all are. You've probably heard over and over again that opening someone else's mail is a violation of federal law, and it probably is. But if I know one thing about the law its that there are all these pesky little contingencies involved. Joe Schmo often goes and reads federal statutes, interprets them to the best of his ability (i.e. incorrectly) and then spreads drivel all over forums he frequents. This drivel then trickles down to 1000 other places until the original law is all but ignored in favor of Joe Shhmo's interpretation. You get me?

I have yet to come upon a case in which someone has been jailed for opening a letter with their address on it that just happened to be addressed to another person. Just sayin'.

Someone Else's Collection Letters

So you've got these collection letters that just keep coming. Why should you do anything other than read them, chuckle to yourself at someone else's misfortune and toss them in trash? Two reasons:

1. The person the collection letters are addressed to, lets call him John Doe, may have no clue that bill collectors are even after him. Eventually the collection agency may just decide to sue him and guess whose house the summons will arrive at? Ignoring the summons on top of all the collection letters will leave John Doe with a default judgment he isn't even aware of. If you have no moral compunctions about putting another person in that position when you can prevent it, fine, but Jiminy Cricket frowns on things like that.

2. John Doe may have just given his creditor a fake address – your address – before stiffing them for the bill. That should anger you just a little bit. Here you are receiving collection letters because some jerk used your address as the basis for his scam. The least you can do is notify the collectors so that they can start looking in the right place and hopefully catch him. 

The big question, of course, is how to notify the collection agency that they've got the wrong guy without admitting that you broke the law and opened someone else's mail.

Part of the difficulty in notifying a collection agency that they're sending dunning letters to the wrong address stems from the fact that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits collectors from putting any information on the exterior of an envelope that would indicate that the communication is from a debt collector. Most bill collectors avoid this by simply putting the return address on the envelope rather than the company name. If you've ever dealt with collectors before, however, you know that simply marking the letter "Return to Sender" isn't going to result in the company calling off the dogs. If bill collectors keep sending collection letters to your address but those letters aren't for you, here are some options to consider:

Acknowledging That You Opened Someone Else's Collection Letter 

This is pretty innocent. As a matter of fact, I've done this one myself. Call the collection agency and explain that while you were opening your mail you discovered the collection notice. Only after reading it did you realize that it wasn't addressed to you. It's an innocent error. Who really expects the mail in their mailbox to be for a stranger? In my case, the collection agent was surprisingly nice and helpful (My jaw hit the floor. I called geared for battle. Oh well, another time) but you can't always expect that.

Just admit you opened it. 

You have a decent chance of getting the agent to begrudgingly accept the fact that the company made an error and take your address off the company mailing list. If the bill collector starts railing about you breaking the law by opening someone else's mail, take it calmly and point out that it isn't reasonable to expect that mail in your mailbox, with your address on it, isn't addressed to you. If you want to really make sure that you don't get any more mail from the collection agency, go to your good friend Google and track down the perpetrator for them. Have John Doe's real address on hand when you call.

Playing It Safe With the Collection Agency

If you like to play by the rules and don't want to risk a jilted collection agency doing something crazy – like filing a lawsuit against you for opening someone else's mail (because, lets face it, they are all about the Benjamins) you can opt to type out a nice letter noting that the recipient of this "piece of mail" is not a resident of the given address. Include an unopened collection letter (if you open it you're just giving yourself away) with your note and send both to the return address the collection agency provided on the letter.

Now – and don't screw this up – if you're playing it safe do NOT address the collection agency by name in your letter. The collection agency didn't list its company name on the envelope, and you're playing by the rules and feigning ignorance, remember?

With any luck, one of the above tactics will prove successful and you won't receive any more collection letters at your address for a mysterious debtor who doesn't live there.

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