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How to Slay Zombie Debt

A zombie debt is an old bill that’s come back to haunt you. You have a few ways to handle it.
June 6, 2018
Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance
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You’re being hounded. You thought that debt was gone for good, but collectors are closing in and demanding payment. You may be facing zombie debt.

Zombie debt is typically an old debt that’s expired or you no longer owe, but you’re being asked to pay it.

Here’s what zombie debt is and tips for handling it.

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What is a zombie debt?

A zombie debt might be a dormant bill resurrected by debt collectors — or it could be something you never owed at all. Or the debt could be past the statute of limitations, meaning you can’t be sued for payment.

Be careful: Making even a single payment on an old debt can bring it back from the dead.

Creditors regularly remove old debt from their books and sell it to third-party debt collectors for cents on the dollar. But as debts are sold and resold, information can decay, leading collectors to seek payment on an erroneous debt.

Common sources of zombie debt:

  • Debts you do owe but forgot about.
  • Debts you already settled with a creditor.
  • Fraudulent charges from identity theft.
  • Debts wiped out in bankruptcy.
  • Debts beyond the statute of limitations for when you can be sued for payment.

Be careful: Making even a single payment on an old debt can bring it back from the dead.

Collectors can profit even if they collect only a portion of the original debt, so that gives them incentive to resurrect old bills years after the debts were incurred.

“That in itself can pose a danger to consumers, especially when high-pressure collection tactics are being used, because it’s hard to verify if the old debt is legitimate,” says Colin Hector, staff attorney at the Federal Trade Commission.

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How to kill zombie debt

  1. Gather the facts: Consumers should “get as much information as possible before making a decision,” says April Kuehnhoff, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “Even if you’re feeling pressure during a phone call, don’t agree to make even a $20 payment.”
  2. Request what’s called a debt validation letter: It will outline details including the original creditor, the amount of the debt and how you can challenge it. This will help you verify that it is your debt and hasn’t already been paid.
  3. Determine if the debt is past the statute of limitations: Ask the debt collector or research your state’s laws around time-barred debt. You cannot legally be sued for debt that’s past the statute of limitations, although collectors may still try.
  4. Pick your method of attack:
    • If you already paid the debt: Write a letter to the collections agency demanding that it cease contact. The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act requires it to do so.
    • If it’s not your debt or is otherwise invalid: Write a letter challenging the debt within 30 days of first contact.
    • If you do owe the debt and can pay: Resolving an unpaid account can get it out of your life and perhaps help your credit score. Get any payment agreement in writing before sending money.
    • If you do owe it and can’t pay: Pursue debt relief through credit counseling or bankruptcy.

No matter what, be proactive: Don’t ignore anything you receive in the mail from debt collectors, and get everything in writing.