Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Even with the Federal Reserve estimating twice as many Americans are hounded by debt collectors today as 12 years ago, stories like Atlanta, Ga. homeowner Rita James’ never cease to amaze.More than a decade ago, James was sent a pair of tax bills from the Fulton County tax commissioner’s office––one under her own name, which she paid, and another under a man’s name that she didn’t recognise and ignored, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
That seemingly innocuous error landed her in a legal tug-of-war that dragged on for four years and nearly cost her the home she lived in for half a century.
Here’s how it happened:
As far as the county tax commissioner was concerned, the debt belonged to James, even though the bill had been addressed to someone else. When she didn’t pay, they sold the tax lien to collections. From that point on, James was in deep and didn’t even know it for another 13 years.
It wasn’t until the collections agency, Intown Ventures, sued her just before the holidays in 2007 and demanded back payments on the home that she realised the mix-up. What’s more, Intown claimed she was no longer even the owner. They had apparently acquired her home at auction in 2002.
James’ saga is a textbook example of what can happen when consumer debts are sent off to collectors. While state officials claim it’s an efficient way to recoup debts, it often leaves people little time to defend themselves. Like James, debtors’ homes are often used as collateral and can wind up on the auction block when the debt isn’t repaid.
James’ legal dispute would have likely dragged on for months to come, but the debt collector fortunately decided to drop the suit in June.
“I wasn’t really surprised because they really didn’t have any reason to take my house,” she told the AJC. “They knew in their heart they didn’t own that land.”
Too bad they didn’t see it that way.
“We’re not saying we didn’t have the right to do what we were doing,” Intown Ventures’ attorney said. “We just voluntarily relinquished all our rights to the property to put an end to this, which, frankly, is what we’ve been trying to do for four years.”
In the end, a simple fact-check might have saved all parties involved a lot of headaches. Not all tax commissioners are as quick to sell off liens to collectors, but if you happen to spot a billing error, don’t count on the sender to work it out themselves. Take matters into your own hands and hound them until you’re sure the issue’s been resolved. Otherwise, you could be putting your credit (and sanity) at risk.
As with all billing disputes, keep a clean paper trail of all your communications just in case you wind up in court like James.