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How I got the debt collector off my dad's back Add to ...

Somewhere in Toronto, there’s a man with a name similar to my father’s and he owes a Canadian airline $159.88.

I’ve learned all about this man – his name, address and his habit of not paying his bills – because last week, the debt collection agency hired to track him down sent his bill to my dad.

“An account has been listed against you!” the bill read, all in capital letters. “Your remittance must be in our office within 72 hours.”

Even at 76, my dad’s a pretty feisty guy, not the sort to pay for something he didn’t buy just because someone threatens “further action” and uses all-caps. His gut reaction was he was being scammed. After all, there were no details on the bill about when the debt occurred or what it was for, and my dad has never been on a plane in his life.

I also thought it was a scam, but decided to check out the company's website just in case. At first glance, it looked like a phishing attempt, since payments were not being taken through a secure “https” website. However, when I looked up the website’s registration at Network Solutions, I could see that it had been registered by the same B.C. company since 1996.

Still not totally convinced, I used the WayBackMachine website to look at historic screenshots of the site. It had, in one form or another, been the same site for 15 years. Google Maps Street View confirmed that the company had an office at the address on the website, and it was listed by the B.C. Better Business Bureau as an accredited business in good standing.

Suddenly I was very concerned. If the collection agency was real but the debt was phony, had my dad’s identity been stolen?

I advised my dad to notify the local police, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, his bank and credit card company. I also told him to get his credit report from Equifax and TransUnion and have a fraud alert placed on his file.

A call to the airline involved confirmed that the bill was suspicious. An agent told me the airline would not try to collect a debt without giving certain details.

So I called the debt agency to explain the situation and see what I could find out about the alleged debt. The agent I spoke with gave me the date of the transaction, the ticket number and a partial credit card number, which did not match my dad’s.

The details suggested someone had created a phony credit card using my dad’s name and address, yet his credit report came back clean and he had not received any other unusual bills.

What the heck was going on? Had someone hired the debt agency to scam people? I posed that question to police in B.C., who went to the agency to investigate. I quickly received the answer I was looking for.

Turns out the debt collector received a name from the airline that was close in spelling to my dad’s and with a different address. It was sent to my dad due to a "glitch” in the system.

“There’s no fraud or identity theft going on here,” the agent assured me. “Tell your dad we’re really, really sorry about this.”

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn't jumped through so many hoops to clear up this mistake. Would my dad have been hounded by phone calls? Would the debt have ended up on his credit report? I guess the lesson here is don't believe everything you receive in the mail, but don't ignore it, either.

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