Often when I post about challenging collection efforts or disputing items on one's credit report, I get an angry comment along the lines of "If'n you borrowed the money, you should PAY IT BACK!!!"
I think many of these comments are from professional debt collectors, who stumble across the blog because it's titled "Credit/Debt Recovery." That title was a big mistake, but I'm over it, and it's too late to make the change.
Anyhow, I'm not sympathetic to the arguments that it's a simple matter of "PAY IT BACK!!!"
The comparison I'm about to make may seem like a stretch, but it's not, so bear with me. Via the excellent Agitator blog, here is a link to a CNN article about a man exonerated by DNA evidence years after being imprisoned for murder.
It's a far cry from credit card debt, sure, but there's a lesson in good faith that everyone should heed. The victim of the false prosecution in this case cooperated with police, thinking that they would never accuse him of murder when they learned that he was innocent. His father had raised him to obey authority, and since he hadn't committed any crime, he didn't feel like he had anything to worry about.
So this man cooperated with the police investigation, and it resulted in his serving ten years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Even though he was innocent and had nothing to hide, he should have gotten a lawyer from the beginning and should never have answered questions without an attorney present.
Treat collectors the same way. No, I'm not saying hire a lawyer every time. What I mean is, be defensive, protect yourself, and demand proof before you repay any old debt. Don't just "PAY IT BACK" without making the collector prove the debt is valid, that you are the person who owes the debt, and they have the legal right to collect it. Be blunt, straightforward, and firm. I'm not saying you should be a jerk, but don't be nice either. Assume you're dealing with someone who is out to get you (you are) and negotiate in that spirit.
When I say be tough, I mean it. The more firm you are in demanding proof, the more likely the collector is to drop the matter. And threaten to report them to the FTC if they continue collection efforts. Being tough works with junk debt collectors; they don't have time to mess with you if you're sincerely going to put up a big fight. If the debt is legit, you owe it, and they have written proof to back it up, then they'll be sure to let you know (make them SHOW you the proof). Only then should you prepare to pay off the account. And even then, if it's a large amount, you might want to talk to a settlement negotiator. The collector didn't pay the full amount to acquire the debt, so you shouldn't have to repay the full amount.
Remember, standing firm on your rights doesn't make you a bad person. Some people will tell you to cooperate with debt collectors; "they're just doing their job." I say their job should include verifying the validity of the debts they collect, and backing that up with documentation. It's not your job to help them make their collection quotas, it's theirs. That's why I linked to that CNN article above. It's obviously an extreme example, but operating in good faith with people who are out to get you is not a course of action I can recommend.