These days, more and more people report getting "robo-dialed" by debt collectors looking for people with similar names, similar phone listings, similar addresses.
It's annoying, irritating and -- when a collection call jolts you awake late at night -- sometimes downright frightening.
Take Ted Gibson, a retired government economist in Sacramento, Calif. The phone directory lists him as "T. Gibson," which means he's frequently called by collectors looking for folks with similar initials.
Although he says he and his wife pay off their bills, do not run up credit card charges and have clean credit histories, "we receive five to six calls a week from various collection outfits" for other Gibsons whose first names start with "T." Many of these other Gibsons appear to have multiple outstanding debts, Gibson says, "so there are a least a dozen different bill collectors hounding us night and day."
Federal and California state officials say debt collection calls -- including those to the wrong person -- are increasing and are "a serious consumer protection problem." Last year, the Federal Trade Commission logged 140,000 complaints about debt collectors, everything from calling the wrong person to leaving threatening messages.
In some cases, the erroneous calls are simple cases of mistaken identity. Others may be legitimate attempts by debt collector trolling through phone listings trying to find a match.
Or they could be fraud, attempts to wrestle money from financially vulnerable victims.
Debt collection fraud has "always been there ... but it seems like it's hot right now," said Joanne McNabb, chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection. "People may be more susceptible to a debt collection scam because -- in this economy -- they have debts. Scammers are taking advantage of people's concerns."
Officials admit there's no easy way to stop mistaken debtor calls, but you can take some measures to protect yourself.
First, don't hang up. Ask for the names of the caller and company -- and for written verification of the debt. (It could be something you've forgotten.)
"If they're making threats or asking for personal information, it's a sign they're a scam," said McNabb.
Try getting some information. "Sometimes there's some value in talking with them," said Tom Pahl, assistant director of the FTC's consumer protection branch.
By law, debt collection callers must send you written confirmation within five days that states the creditor's name, the amount owed and procedures for disputing the debt. You should respond, in writing, within 30 days.
"If it's obviously not you ... you can report that back in writing," said Pahl. "The collector might take you out of their calling system."
You can also say you want the calls to cease. Debt collectors are allowed to make one more contact, either to confirm they won't make further contact or to announce further action, such as taking you to court.
Many people think they're safe from debt callers if they've signed up for the federal Do Not Call list. But that only bars telemarketers, not debt collectors, said McNabb.
If you're harassed by errant debt-collection calls, McNabb recommends calling your phone company and requesting that your number be unlisted. "If you have caller ID, get the phone number of who's making the call. Report it to your phone company, which will investigate," she said.
Part of the problem, said the FTC's Pahl, is that many debt collectors buy bundled packages of old debts. If you've complained but they haven't "scrubbed" your number from their system, it can get passed along every time a new debt collector takes up the package.
Some collectors try to intimidate consumers into paying debts they don't actually owe. Don't fall for it, say state and federal officials.
If a debt is too old -- typically three to six years for credit card debts in most states, for instance -- it's beyond the statute of limitations for collection. But a collection agency can still try to collect from you.
"It's extremely confusing," Pahl said. After a certain time, "you can't be sued, but they can still call you to collect on it. And if you do make a payment, the debt becomes live all over again."