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When you’re on a mission to clean up your credit, there’s one task that may prove more difficult than you’d think: figuring out who you owe. That’s especially true if some of your debts are old, and have been sold by your creditors to collection agencies. These debts may be bought and sold multiple times, and some even remain in limbo for months or years. Tracking down the owner of a debt so you can pay it sometimes proves challenging.

Here are three ways to find your debts so you can resolve them, along with three crucial things you need to understand when you do.

1. Contact Your Creditors

You may want to try reaching out the original creditor – the gym, doctor’s office or credit card company, for example – to see whether they can tell you which agency they placed the account with. Be forewarned, though: If the first collection agency it was placed with was unable able to collect, it may have sold it to a different agency. In that case, these next two methods may help…

2. Review Your Credit Reports

Your credit reports are the first place you should look for your debts, so be sure to get your free annual credit reports. Most loan accounts (such as credit cards, auto loans, student loans) are reported to the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You may see the same debt listed more than once. The original creditor may report the debt as a past-due account or a charge-off, and any collection agency that is trying to collect it may be listed as well. Contact information should be provided for creditors and collection agencies, so you can reach out to them directly if you need more information.

3. Look Up Your Debts

More than once we’ve been asked by consumers whether there is a central place where they can look up accounts that may be in collections. And other than directing them to their credit reports, the answer has been “no.” But a company called Global Debt Registry is trying to change that by creating a central repository of bad debt. It is still in its early stages, so not all debts will be listed through the service at this time. Nevertheless, it has “the contact information for every collection firm the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is aware of,” says Mark Parsells, CEO of Global Debt Registry. Contact information for these collection agencies, as well as sample letters consumers can use to request verification of a debt, are available at their website, DebtLookUp.com, for free.

Look Before You Leap

Now that you know how to find your debts, there is still a question you’ll need to ask, yourself “What should I do about my old debts?” If you owe the debt, you know the amount is correct and you can afford to pay it then of course, the answer is likely “pay it.” But there are some situations where deciding which debts to pay and which to let go means navigating a tricky minefield of decisions. Here are three considerations to keep in mind.

1. Paying off an old collection account isn’t likely to quickly boost your credit scores. Under most credit scoring models used today, paying off a collection account does not necessarily raise your credit scores. That will change eventually, as more creditors use newer credit scoring models such as Vantage Score 3 and FICO 9, both of which ignore collection accounts where the balance is zero. In the meantime, there can be an indirect benefit to your credit scores when you resolve one of these accounts; the debt won’t be sold to a new collection agency, which could create still another collection item on your credit.

2. Resolving most old debts won’t affect how long they appear on your credit reports. Collection accounts may be reported for seven years plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor. Paying one off doesn’t change that, though occasionally collectors are willing to stop reporting an account in exchange for payment. (These are often referred to as “pay for removal” deals.) You shouldn’t count on that, though.

3. Making payments on an old debt may open up a can of worms.Statutes of limitations” refers to state laws that govern how long collectors can sue to collect old debts. If you make a payment on a debt that’s outside the statute of limitations (also called “time-barred”), you may extend the time period for which you can be sued.

Collection accounts seriously affect credit scores, so make sure you are aware of what’s being reported on your credit reports. You can get a free credit report summary and action plan for your credit at Credit.com.

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  • Mel

    I am fairly certain that I have unpaid debts far in the past that no longer appear on credit reports, and I have no recollection of who the original creditor might be (this would be 15-25 years in the past). I am having to attest to my lifetime credit history since age 18. Can the investigative agency reach information that extends back further than what I can access? I am not seeking to avoid disclosure of debts, but rather am hoping to determine what they may be and disclose them, so I will use the information you have provided as well….I just don’t want any nasty surprises. Your input would be greatly appreciated.

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      I talked with a consumer protection attorney who asked to remain off the record as he can’t provide legal advice in this forum. Here is his response (for educational purposes only):

      There seems to be 2 questions here – (1) Can the investigative agency reach information that extends back further than what I can access? AND (2) I am having to attest to my lifetime credit history since age 18. What must I disclose?

      The answer to the first question is “MAYBE”. Would need to know more about the debt (origination date and amount, type of debt, physical records, etc). For example, an unpaid mortgage from 25 years ago is more trackable than an unpaid medical bill from 25 years old. Also, depends on who this investigative agency is and what they’re searching for?

      But the second question seems like the most important – I’d need to know more about WHO he’s attesting to, WHY he’s attesting, and WHAT he’s attesting for?

      Bottom line, if he is legitimately attesting “to my lifetime credit history since age 18” then he MUST DISCLOSE this debt and all others that he knows about. Doesn’t matter if an investigative agency cannot find it – his sworn statement is about his own history. For example, failing to disclose prior debts in a personal bankruptcy can have negative consequences.

      It sounds like he knows vaguely she has “debts” but not the specifics. He writes “I am not seeking to avoid disclosure of debts, but rather am hoping to determine what they may be and disclose them, so I will use the information you have provided as well….I just don’t want any nasty surprises.”

      When attesting to “lifetime credit history”, he’d need to make a good faith effort to recollect and describe everything. If he legitimately doesn’t recall certain details, that’s fine; he can only attest to things she knows. But, he cannot “knowingly” omit or fail to disclosure items of his “lifetime credit history”.

      • Mel

        Thanks, Gerri. I just want to make sure I know about everything THEY may know about. They = C&F committee. If that seems vague to you or to other readers, it should not be to your attorney friend.

        Debts way back in time would have been utilities, credit cards (back in the days when they mailed the cards to college students, unsolicited), and the like. I guess my biggest concern was if there is some report that is going to list every single debt I’ve ever incurred that might be available to them but not me.

        I really appreciate the input, in addition to all the helpful information in your blog.

        • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

          You are welcome! Hope it all works out.

  • mae

    Credit.com staffers,

    I was medically discharged from the military some years back, and I seem to have accrued some related debts that I can’t seem to find, as my tax return was garnished to repay delinquent debts. I’m wondering if there is a way to find those debts so that I can put them back into repayment status without requesting a credit report, as I really don’t want my credit score to fall below 600 (and it’s only 635 right now). Is this feasible?

  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    If you’ve check your credit reports recently (you can get your free credit reports on AnnualCreditReport.com) and the debt isn’t on there, that’s a big red flag. Do an Internet search of the company as well.

  • trish

    good luck finding help on debt lookup. that company doesn’t have information on any accounts. i’m not aware of any bank having a formal contract with them.

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