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When debt collectors approach

It's one thing when you've fallen behind on your bills. It's another thing entirely when debt collectors start calling or taking legal action against you for outstanding balances that have been paid off, discharged through bankruptcy --- or never incurred by you in the first place.

Jamie Smith Hopkins' story in today's paper discusses changes that Maryland courts may adopt to require debt collectors to prove that their claims for judgment against debtors are valid.

Many consumers never show up to court hearings to contest the claims, which results in judges finding in favor of the debt buyer.

But now, according to Jamie's story, Maryland judges are using a checklist that has judges asking questions that seem basic, such as "has the debt buyer proved that it really owns the account?"

So what should you do if you are on the receiving end of collections notices, especially if you think you received them in error? Definitely, you should not ignore them.

Instead, follow this advice from the Federal Trade Commission's FAQ about debt collection, which reviews consumer rights when it comes to collection. If you don't believe the debt is yours, you can send a letter asking for verification of the debt.

The Maryland Attorney General's office also has tips for dealing with debt collectors.

Also, keep in mind that federal laws govern how debt collectors can approach consumers. Both the FTC and AG's office links above also have information about filing a complaint if you believe a collector has violated those laws.

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