I visited my parents’ house a few weeks ago and my mom pointed to an open envelope sitting on the counter addressed to me.
“That’s a bad letter,” she said.
Mail for me doesn’t usually go to their house anymore, so it was a bit unusual to begin with. But as I read the collections notice, I grew more and more confused. There were two charges — $319.52 and $165.40 — from what looked to be a physician in Sheridan, Wyo.
I’ve never been to Sheridan, in the far north edge of Wyoming, almost to Montana.
But I still had to wonder, could the notice really be for me?
I did live in Jackson, Wyo., at one point, and I had knee surgery there. I also had knee surgery and a very shady anesthesiologist in Aspen who charged twice what he quoted and twice what insurance would cover.
Was he coming back for more?
I called immediately and left a message for the collection agent and braced myself for a fight against an apparently unknown enemy.
But when the collection agent returned my call the next day, it was worse than I expected. She told me a doctor in Sheridan billed me using my Social Security number. And of course, having never been to Sheridan or receiving any bills from the doctor, I failed to pay.
She had my Social Security number — my actual unique bar code in the American system. How?
If she had my social, it wasn’t just an innocent mix-up. There must be some woman out there passing herself off as me, and visiting doctors willy-nilly, without bothering to pay. I suddenly regretted all those waitressing applications on which I foolishly scribbled my SSN and then left with careless hostesses and bartenders.
Remembering the past
I hated to entertain the idea, but I had worked with a lot of illegal immigrants in Jackson. I wrote about them and traveled with them back to their tiny hometown in Tlaxcala, Mexico.
Some were friends, and I knew most of them earned their livings “legitimately,” paying income taxes, though with made-up Social Security numbers. What if someone had found my number and figured I wouldn’t mind. Had someone been earning income with my identity?
I checked my credit reports and they were all clean — no new cards or collections I didn’t know about, which made me even more concerned that someone was just using my social to make a living.
I called the state attorney general offices in both Colorado and Wyoming looking for help with what I thought was identity theft.
Saying they couldn’t offer legal advice, both referred me to their websites, which recommended filing fraud alerts with the three credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, along with obtaining itemized statements from the original creditors and then filing a report with local police. I filed the fraud alerts.
I just had to wait for the collection agent to get the itemized reports before I could call police. The saving grace in all of this was that the agent I was working with seemed to believe me.
When she called back, she said the agency that hired her seemed to have plucked my social out of thin air and assigned it to someone’s bill. The real debtor was an Amanda Olivia Miller (my middle name is Holt) who used to live in Sheridan and had at least one child whom she took to a pediatrician there before moving to Colorado.
She was born seven years later than my year of birth.
Pretty much all the two of us had in common were our first and last names and that we had both lived in Wyoming and moved to Colorado.
“I wouldn’t say it happens commonly,” said Ken Davidson, an attorney and collections agent in Colorado Springs, “but it’s probably not a one-time occurrence either.”
Collections companies and agencies do what’s called skip tracing. It’s essentially a more-sophisticated Google search.
Agencies usually network with each other and can search the financial records in each other’s systems. They look at addresses and birth dates and look for associations that will help them track down a debtor.
That’s what happened in my case.
I called the collection company and I was prepared for another fight. Instead, I was surprised by how helpful the woman on the other end of the line was. She read through pages of notes and said the person who handled my case was new on the job.
She found another Amanda Miller who lived in Wyoming and moved to Colorado and, based on birth date, assumed we were the same person. I guess since we were both born in the 1980s, it was close enough?
“That’s one of the reasons the fair debt law is designed the way it is,” Davidson said. “All of the collection agencies have the same requirement. The first thing we do is send out specific language. If you have a dispute, you have to let us know.”
Lots of denials
Of course, Davidson and other collections professionals get plenty of phone calls from people who say they don’t owe. And it seems like it would be hard to determine when someone is telling the truth.
“Sometimes it’s more difficult because there’s not a clear explanation for why it’s not you,” Davidson said. “There’s some common sense involved. If you talk to someone for a while, you can kind of tell.”
For people with common names, like Amanda Miller, this sort of thing can happen, Davidson said, and when that does take place, most professionals will work with people.
It worked out for me.
The collection agency said it had removed my Social Security number and notified the credit bureaus of its error. They’re even sending me a letter noting their error so I will have written proof.
But it seems to me that I got lucky and had an agent who believed me. There’s no way to guard yourself against agencies arbitrarily assigning your Social Security number to someone else’s debt.
You’ll just have to hope someone will help you.