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I’m not a deadbeat, but I play one on my cell phone

Daniel Ray

“My name’s not Sean, and I don’t owe you any money.”

That’s how my side of many conversations begin on my cell phone. And this is the story of how I became a deadbeat (once removed), and my experience with getting on debt collectors’ lists (never removed, no matter how hard you try).

Six months ago, I got a new cell phone. Soon after, it became clear the phone number’s previous owner, Sean M., had borrowed substantial sums for a mortgage and for other purposes from several well-known national banks. Sean did not pay his debts, a fact that debt collectors began calling to remind me of. Daily. Having no prior experience of being in debt collectors’ crosshairs, this was an eye-opener on how, at a retail level, the debt collection process works.

A typical conversation would go like this:
“Hello?”
“May I speak to Sean M., please?”
“He no longer owns this phone number and I don’t know who he is.”
“Could you ask him to call us, please?”
“I said I don’t know him.”
“Sean?”

Over time and dozens of calls, a few things became clear. The first and most important lesson was that bill collectors are paid to collect bills, not to fix their bosses’ database errors. If you answer the phone listed in their records, you are presumed to be the person who owes the money, and if you insist you’re not, you’re also presumed to be a liar.

To their credit, just one bill collector called after 8 p.m., and no one made a threat that would have been illegal under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. But neither was there any action taken to correct errors. When told their records are wrong, they insisted they were right, or hung up, or promised to fix it but didn’t. The debt collectors I dealt with clearly saw it in their self interest to move to the next call, and in moving on, they in essence threw my number back in the deadbeat pool for some other collector to deal with.

Asking to speak with a supervisor gets you cut off, or put on perpetual hold, or an encore performance of the conversation above. The results were the same. Despite months of protestations, the number of phone calls increased. Apparently, word got around: “Sean’s back!”

My “favorite” variation came from the automated bill collection calling system one national bank employs. It leaves phone messages demanding you phone back to a certain number. Once you do, you cannot proceed unless you “enter your 10-digit account number — now.” Not having any account, I couldn’t comply, now or ever. Within a few days, another automated debt collector called to demand my time.

The experience has left me more sympathetic to those caught in the system. I didn’t owe anyone a penny, and yet I couldn’t escape the debt collection system.

I finally did what the bill collectors did: I changed numbers, throwing “Sean’s” phone number back into the pool of available numbers, passing the problem down the line.

I pity the next “Sean.”

And no, I didn’t leave a forwarding message. My days as a deadbeat are finally over.

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  • Cara

    I like this post, Dan!

  • Rod

    Dan, I have the same account requirement, call me back message. They call every Sunday, during church, looking for an unnamed person regarding a Zales account.
    I found a useful tactic. I respond, Pleasant Harbor Police Department, what is your emergency?

  • My sympathies. It sounds like that comment was a creative way to get out of those calls. I hope too many heads didn’t turn in church when you said it!

  • cheryl

    I have to exact same problem with a person named Melissa. I know her dog’s problems and her issues with Dept of childrens services. She is also behind on her mortgage. I tell TD bank I am not her but they do not believe me. I was lucky enough to have a lawyer on retainer and he ADVISED them to stop calling me. I refused to change my cell @ because of a deadbeat.

  • John

    Let me explain this from the other end of the call. Collectors do utilize different databases with information trying to collect debt. When a call is made to a wrong number, it can be marked as bad in the said database. The problem arises when a person owing money, uses your phone number when applying for credit and it is then listed on their credit report. This is one area that a collector can not remove the number from. Until the person applies for credit with new phone numbers, this number will be on thier credit report for an undetermined number of years. It also explains why people that get calls for people like “sean” can get the calls stopped for a while, then months or years down the road they start again. It’s actually frustrating for a collector as well. So Cheryl, while you may think your attorney handled the problem, give it some time, Melissa will come back to haunt you. Sad but true.

  • nonegiven

    I would try to get a mailing address, then send a cease and desist letter to each company.

  • Tejan

    One thing you can do if you have a smart phone is get an app that blocks or sends to voicemail all calls that do not have caller ID. This forces debt. collectors to call with a valid phone number, and you aren’t bothered by ones that do not use caller ID. With a valid phone number, you are more likely to figure out who is calling you, and send a cease and desist letter. The reason why you have to go through this hassle is because debt collectors will hang up on you if you start asking who they are and what their mailing address is. They don’t want you to know who they are so you can send them a letter asking them to stop contacting you. If you really want to get fancy, get a service that allows you to forward calls based on incoming caller ID. Send them straight to voicemail or to any number in the U.S.