How do you prove a decades-old debt isn’t yours? It’s harder than you might think

·3 min read

A company is garnishing Sherrel Dunn’s wages $700 a pay period. That’s even though she has documents that prove she’s a victim of identity theft and the debt isn’t hers.  Still consumer investigator Justin Gray learned she may still be on the hook for this money because of wage garnishment rules.

Sherrel Dunn said she didn’t see a 2009 lease for an apartment in her name until years later.

“During that time I was married and a homeowner,” Dunn said.

Dunn said she only found out about the lease and the debt after a debt collector started garnishing her wages more than a dozen years later in December 2022.

Not only did Sherrell Dunn say she never rented or lived in that apartment, she also long ago reported that she was a victim of identity theft. Dunn even signed a sworn affidavit with the IRS in 2011 stating her identity was stolen.

“You just feel violated. You feel helpless, as I did when I first learned my identity was stolen,” Dunn said. “I had to deal with all these collection agencies calling me and sending me mail.”

The law allows debt collectors to go after these old debts and charge interest that sometimes adds up to be more than the original amount owed.

“It might feel like it comes out of nowhere because it was so long ago,” explained Jillian Sant, an attorney who specializes in helping customers fight debt collectors. She agreed to look at Dunn’s case pro bono. “I’ve actually seen a lot of identity theft cases, and they seem to be increasing,” Sant said.

The law allows debt collectors to renew judgments every seven years-- indefinitely. That means years after a debt, wages can be garnished without warning, like in Sherrell Dunn’s case.

“So over time, if you are renewing this judgment, it’s going to grow and grow and grow and grow and grow. And suddenly, when life is better, you’re going to get hit with this massive garnishment,” Sant said.

As an identity theft victim, Dunn is scared to throw old records away. She still had utility bills and student loan statements with her real address, proving she did not live in that Stone Mountain apartment. She also had that ID theft affidavit with the IRS to prove she was an identity theft victim. But with all that her garnishment challenge was still rejected by a judge.

“This seems so obvious, so simple. It seems like this should be an easy fix,” Dunn said.

To the courts, it did not matter how much evidence Dunn must prove she never rented that apartment because according to court documents, Dunn didn’t respond to a summons about the debt in 2012.

“Once there’s a judgment in place, you have to undo the judgment to even get to assert those defenses. And that can be an insurmountable hurdle,” Sant said.

Sherrell Dunn must pay directly from her paycheck. It doesn’t matter if the debt was legitimately hers to begin with.

“I feel like I’m not only the victim to the identity thieves, I’m a victim to our system because I have no one to help me,” Dunn said.

The company dismissed the debt against Dunn, but Sandt told Justin Gray, that doesn’t mean they cannot come after the debt again in the future.

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