What Is Zombie Debt?

Quick Answer

Zombie debt is debt that comes back to life, even if you no longer really owe it. A debt collector may try to have you make payments on zombie debt, but there are some actions you can take to stop these attempts.

Seated concerned woman considering zombie debt.

Zombie debt is resurrected debt that you likely no longer owe but that a debt collector will try to get you to pay anyway. It can pop up when you least expect it, but you can take action to fight it.

When you're armed with the knowledge of how to validate debt and handle debt collectors, a little undead debt can go down without a fight. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Zombie Debt?

Zombie debt is debt that pops up when you least expect it. You may encounter zombie debt when you are contacted by a debt collector about a debt you do not owe anymore, or a debt you may have forgotten about. Zombie debts may include things like:

Debt collectors may also contact you with fraudulent debts. These debts can be the result of identity theft, or the collectors may be scammers looking to get your personal information or money. If you suspect fraud, follow steps to validate the debt.

A debt collector may also contact you with debt you originally thought you don't owe, but could just be an account you forgot about. By regularly checking your credit report, you can feel confident identifying any forgotten accounts.

Why Am I Being Attacked by Zombie Debt?

Zombie debt may rise up out of your financial past on a few occasions. These occasions are often due to record-keeping errors but also from attempts to collect old debt. These may include:

  • Creditors selling debt to collectors with accidental inclusion of resolved debts
  • Debt collectors going after old debt, which may be past the statute of limitations to collect

You cannot be sued for debt that is past the legal statute of limitations. But the span of these limitations may not always be what you expect. For example, debt collectors can use a payment made against your will to claim a restart of the statute of limitations on your debt. It's important to keep track of the most recent payments toward your debt to properly calculate this timeline.

Some collectors will try to manipulate you into restarting payments with the hope of collecting old debts. This may come in the form of promises to stop harassment for a small payment, or it may be a false assertion the debt will not show on your credit report if a payment is made.

It's important to note that while you can no longer be sued for collection of some zombie debts, creditors may still be able to pursue you for payment.

How to Deal With Zombie Debt Bill Collectors

Whether bill collectors contact you about zombie debt or a more legitimate account, it's important to know how to deal with them. You can learn ways that will help you manage the debt without getting harassed.

When dealing with bill collectors, take these steps to authenticate debt, save money and protect yourself from harassment:

  1. Check your credit report. Your debt may not yet have been reported to the credit bureaus. By working with the collectors, you may be able to avoid its appearance on your credit report.
  2. Get familiar with the statute of limitations on debt. After a certain amount of time, you are protected against lawsuits related to debts. Time frames vary by state and debt category.
  3. Validate all debt. Request a debt validation letter if the debt or its amount is unfamiliar to you. Ask for proof of validity within the statute of limitations. The debt collector must pause collections if you send this request within 30 days of receiving the validation notice.
  4. Negotiate your debt. Depending on the situation, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan or a settlement amount with the debt collector. But make sure you're aware of all implications and potential effects on your credit report that some negotiations may have.
  5. Maintain responsible communication with collectors. If you work with a debt collector to validate and negotiate payment for your debts, maintain good communication. This means keeping them informed of any unexpected changes, documenting your agreements for your own records and remaining civil throughout the process for the most successful negotiation possibilities.
  6. Verify your rights in the situation. When you're dealing with debt collectors, it's important to understand your rights as they are dictated by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This knowledge can help protect you if a debt collector threatens or harasses you or tries to add illegal fees to your balance.
  7. Send a cease and desist letter when necessary. You should send the letter by certified mail and keep a copy. There are two circumstances when sending a cease and desist letter may help end contact with debt collectors. These include:
    • If the statute of limitations has run out
    • If you are "judgment proof," meaning you have no current or future assets to satisfy a lawsuit judgment

When dealing with zombie debt and bill collectors, it's important to feel confident about your rights. If you no longer owe the debt, there are clear steps to take to protect yourself. If it turns out you do owe the debt, there may be helpful negotiation options available to make paying for it less painful.

Bury Zombie Debt Forever

One of the best defenses against zombie debt is to go on the offensive in clearing up your debts. Work to pay off your debts and potentially negotiate payments before debts are sold to collectors. This can help prevent them from returning down the line as zombies.

When you get your free credit report from Experian you can get a clear snapshot of your current debts. Start your fight against zombie debt by getting informed about what you owe.