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What Is Zombie Debt — and How Should You Address It?



Part of the appeal of zombie movies is they’re downright startling. Even though we know to expect hordes of the undead popping up on screen at any time, it’s still surprising and even a bit frightening. But this thrill keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for the next thrill.


Unfortunately, zombie debt isn’t quite as entertaining. In fact, it can be downright terrifying when debt from the past comes back to haunt you. Here’s more on what zombie debt is in the first place and how you should address it if it creeps back into your life.


So, What Is Zombie Debt?

You won’t find zombie debt on your credit report, which is why it can be so confusing if a collector calls soliciting payment on a debt from years ago. Essentially, zombie debt originates so far in the past that it’s already dropped off your credit report and exceeded the legal statute of limitations for collections. And yet agencies may still try to collect on these debts, often using tactics that range from obnoxious to downright devious.


According to NerdWallet, here are some common sources of zombie debt you may not expect:


  • Debts you’ve forgotten about


  • Debts you already settled with a creditor on your own or through a program like Freedom Debt Relief


  • Fraudulent charges stemming from identity theft


  • Debts you discharged through bankruptcy


  • Other debts past the statute of limitations for being sued (typically six years)


If collectors start hounding you about a very old debt, you may feel pressured to pay up. But there’s actually little to no benefit to doing so; it likely won’t boost your credit score (because it’s already fallen off your credit report) or prevent a lawsuit (because the legal statute of limitations has passed).


In fact, making any payment on a zombie debt will reset the clock on the statute of limitations, cause that debt to resurface on your credit report and make it so the debt collector can take you to court. Acknowledging debts in writing can also restart the clock, so you’ll want to be very careful about what you say.


Know Your Rights Around Debt Collection

Understanding your rights as a consumer in the face of debt collections will help you avoid inadvertently bringing zombie debt back to life.


First, you’ll want to request a formal debt validation letter from collectors, which will provide more background information. If it turns out the collectors have been hounding you in error, you’ll then have the opportunity to write them a letter challenging the debt and requesting their agency ceases contact. The most important thing during this process is getting every interaction down in writing rather than trying to hash things out on the phone.


The Federal Trade Commission also has consumer protections in place for the debt collection process:


  • Collectors cannot contact you at inconvenient times without your permission (before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.).


  • Collectors cannot contact you at work if you tell them you’re not allowed to receive calls there.


  • Collectors cannot harass you, threaten you with harm, use obscenities, lie, or make false claims you’ll be arrested or sued.


  • You can send a letter requesting their contact ceases.


  • Debt collectors have to tell you how much you owe, the name of the creditor to which you owe it and what you should do if you don’t believe it’s your debt.


The key is really getting enough information about your zombie debt so you can decide what to do next without automatically acknowledging that debt so as to bring it back to life. Know the statute of limitations in your state and your collection process rights as a consumer, too.


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