Virginia Sent Me to Collections for Dodging Taxes

That sounds like an exaggerated, sensationalist headline, but it isn’t!  The commonwealth of Virginia thinks that I failed to pay the income tax I owed in 2009, and last month they sent my information over to a debt collector, who renewed the efforts to track me down.  Me – the personal finance blogger and tax reporting enthusiast – accused of not paying my taxes!

 

In this post I will detail this experience, which from my perspective only started last week.

 

 

The First Calls

 

On Tuesday evening, I received a call to my cell phone.

 

me: “Hello?”

caller: “Hello, may I please speak with Emily [former last name]?”

me: “This is she.”

caller: “Hello, this is [Mary] from the Department of Performance.  Would you please confirm that the last four digits of your social security number are XXXX?”

me (thinking this is a solicitor):  “Um, who is this and why are you calling?”

caller: “I’m calling from the Department of Performance about a matter of personal business.  Would you please confirm that your current or previous address is [XXXX Street Name], Durham, NC?”

me: “I’m not going to confirm anything.  I have no idea what the department of performance is or why you are calling me.”

caller: “Ma’am, I understand that, but as this is a matter of personal business I must confirm your identity before I can give you more details.”

me: “I’m not going to confirm that kind of information over the phone.”

 

We went around in that circle about three times – me asking for more information, her asking for confirmation of my identity – before I told her I was ending the call and hung up.  I figured this was the phone equivalent of an email phishing scam.  I Googled the phone number and “Department of Performance” and came up empty.

 

I then called my parents to warn them that they might receive a phishing phone call about me (since the caller had used my former last name, which is nearly four years outdated now) and instruct them to not confirm any information.  My mother told me that they had received the exact same type of call the previous evening and had already done what I wanted – she just told the caller that I wasn’t there and didn’t say whether I still lived there or gave any information.  My mother though it was a solicitor.

 

 

The Message and Confusion

 

On Saturday around 1:00 PM I heard my phone ring again, but as I was cooking I let it go to voicemail.  It was from a similar number as the call from Tuesday, and this time the caller left a message.  The message was faux-secure in that it said that if I continued to listen that meant I was confirming my identity as Emily [former last name] and recommended that I not listen to the message if anyone else could hear.

 

The message said that I was being contacted by a debt collector in an attempt to collect a debt and that I should call a certain number back.

 

I Googled the number that I was supposed to call and saw that it was associated with tax collection services for the state of Colorado.  I have a troubled family member who used to live in Colorado, so I thought that probably the debt collector was trying to track him down about back taxes or something.

 

I called my parents with this new information and to warn them that they might also be contacted by this debt collector, not just to find me but to find this family other member.  My father said that he had received a call from this debt collector just that morning, again looking for me, and that he didn’t tell her anything.  My parents were getting quite agitated, saying that they thought this debt collector was harassing me and them and that she was very aggressive (I didn’t find her to be aggressive in our conversation, just frustratingly vague).

 

I quickly dismissed the idea that this debt collector might really be trying to collect a debt from me because the only outstanding debt I have is my student loans, which are in deferment, and I recently checked my credit report and nothing was out of place.

 

I had no qualms about talking with the debt collector at that point.  At least the message had given me more information than our previous conversation had, plus I felt more in control of the phone call because I was initiating it and now I knew the company name.  I also do not know the current contact information of my troubled relative so I figured I could just say that and get them to stop calling.

 

 

Connecting with the Debt Collector

 

When I called and finally confirmed for Mary the last four digits of my SSN, she informed me that the commonwealth of Virginia has assessed me with a fine of about $1,500 for nonpayment of taxes from 2009.  The state had apparently been trying to contact me at the address the debt collector had tried to confirm in the previous call (three moves ago).  Last month, the state gave my account over to this debt collection agency.

 

I was absolutely floored that this was really about me – that I had been sent to collections!  But I was confident that it was all a mistake.  I told Mary that I didn’t live or work in Virginia in 2009 so there was no way I owed taxes from that year.  (I grew up in Virginia and my parents still live there, so I had filed taxes there in 2008 and prior.)

 

Mary and I had a long and very polite conversation and again went around in circles a bit as I was trying to wrap my head around the idea that the commonwealth had thought me such a delinquent that they had passed my debt off to a collections agency!  Mary said that, since the fine was likely due to nonpayment of state income tax, I should fax them my 2009 North Carolina state tax return and my W-2 from that year.  But she wasn’t fully confident that the fine was for that reason (didn’t have all the records and said there may have been another kind of “event”), so I said that I would need to see incontrovertible proof that this debt was legitimate before taking further steps.  Why would I send in my tax return if I wasn’t confident that would resolve the issue?  (I was thinking: If they don’t already have my full SSN, they will if I send in that return.)  She told me that she could order a report from the commonwealth but that it would take 30-45 days and in the meantime I should set up a payment plan with them to keep the debt collection from “moving forward.”  I told her that I absolutely was not going to give them any money because I was sure that I did not owe this debt, and to please order the full report.

 

After that I asked what it would mean to me if the debt “moved forward.”  She basically said that as long as I keep picking up the phone nothing will really happen, at least while we were waiting on the report from the commonwealth.  If I fell out of contact with them by skipping several calls (she told me that my next “assessment” was scheduled for the following Tuesday), they could garnish my wages.  That sounded really scary but as the conversation was polite I decided I didn’t mind picking up further calls.

 

I told her at the end of the phone call that I would start looking up my 2009 NC tax return while we were waiting for the commonwealth’s report, and that I wanted to see everything we had discussed in writing.  I started giving her our current address and she said “Oh!  We have that one!” and said that a letter had already been sent and should be arriving soon.

 

 

Processing

 

I called Kyle right after finishing the call with Mary (I had kept him abreast of the previous calls as well) and broke the news about this alleged debt that had been sent to collections – four years after it was allegedly incurred!

 

Kyle and I got married and I moved in with him in May 2010, so if the debt was for my 2009 taxes I had probably already moved by the time the commonwealth first tried to contact me at my previous address.  I had changed my name, too, so that might have made it more difficult for them to track me down – although the debt collector seemed to manage it quite quickly!  It’s crazy to think that I’ve moved three times in the last four years, yet during that entire time my cell phone number and email address have not changed.  Why does the government think that snail mail is the best way to contact us??

 

While I was on the phone with Kyle going over the situation, I started going through my file cabinet and computer to find my 2009 state taxes, but apparently I hadn’t printed or saved the finalized return.  I looked up how to order a copy of my state taxes for free by writing in, so I drafted a request, signed it, and prepared it to mail.

 

Of course, I still had in my mind that this could all be a scam.  It didn’t make a lick of sense that Virginia would think that I owed any tax in 2009.  I had filed a part-year tax return in Virginia for the first half of 2008 and listed my current address as my first apartment in North Carolina – the apartment that had apparently been sending mail to for four years.  I received all of my income in 2009 from my university in North Carolina.  So given that Virginia didn’t come after me for the second half of the year 2008, why would I be on the hook for 2009?

 

I didn’t trust what Mary had told me, so I decided to contact the commonwealth tax agency directly, hoping that they would still have the record about this and would be able to tell me if it was really from them and the reason that they thought I owed anything.  However, by this time it was about 2:00 PM, and the tax offices were closed until Monday morning.  So I was in an information vacuum (the debt collector’s letter had also not yet arrived).

 

 

My Rough Weekend

 

I called my parents again to give them an update.  I assure you that normally I am not so co-dependent with my parents, but I figured I needed to tell them what I knew because they had been receiving the calls as well.  (Mary had confirmed that she would not call my parents now that she had gotten through to me.)  They freaked out, told me that this was definitely a scam, and said that I should not send any money or give any further information to the debt collector.  I told them that I have a very sensitive spam-o-meter and that this did not feel like a scam, but of course that I would confirm it directly with the commonwealth on Monday.  My parents sent me a bunch of emails that night with links to news stories about IRS scams going on right now, none of which were very similar to my interactions with Mary.

 

In between my parents’ defensive freak-out and Kyle jokingly calling me a delinquent, I started having really terrible feelings.

 

First, I just felt ashamed that Virginia had been thinking for four years that I owed them money.  In their eyes, I was a tax dodge – a criminal.  They had been sending me letters all this time and thought that I was ignoring them, when in reality I don’t recall getting a single letter about this issue forwarded to my new address (and I think that I would have taken action had I seen it!).  Even though I was sure I didn’t owe Virginia income tax from 2009, I felt a very heavy burden, particularly because the debt had progressed to an outside collection agency.  There is such a stigma in my mind about debt going bad that the slightest association, even undeservedly, made me feel like a miserable failure – doubly so because personal finance is my hobby!

 

Second, I started to worry that the information I had received was inaccurate and that maybe I legitimately did owe some tax and fees.  My brazen, confident attitude from when I was on the phone with Mary started to crumble.  I thought, maybe she has the year wrong and I screwed up something in my 2008 or earlier tax filing, or maybe some other random thing happed that caused me to have some income in that state in that year and I am unaware of it.  Maybe there is legitimacy to this claim and it won’t be resolved just by sending in my tax return.

 

I didn’t completely break down over this situation on Saturday, but I did talk about it with Kyle for quite some time and we made a few contingency plans depending on how my conversation with Virginia went on Monday.  Really, if push came to shove, paying $1,500 wouldn’t derail anything for us.  I hated having to wait two days to be able to get more information.  Thankfully, over the weekend we went out with some friends to a trampoline warehouse so that gave my mind a brief respite.

 

trampoline flip

flipping into the foam pit to take my mind of my “debt”

 

 

Talking with the Virginia Department of Taxation

 

As soon as the Virginia Department of Taxation offices opened on Monday, I called them.  After a long wait on hold (why did this debt collection have to happen at this time of year?), I got through to someone in the collections office.

 

The representative confirmed everything Mary had told me.  Now that they had an updated name and contact information for me, I was told that I will be able to work directly with the Department of Taxation to resolve this mistake and that a hold will be put on the debt collectors pursuing me.  I said that my copy of my 2009 North Carolina state tax return might take up to three weeks to get to me but I would fax it and my W-2 over as soon as possible.  The representative said that should resolve the matter.

 

I asked how it could have happened that Virginia got the impression that I was living there in 2009, given that they knew my address was in North Carolina since that’s where they were trying to contact me.  The representative said that any mail being sent to my old Virginia address (my parents’ address) in 2009 would have indicated to the state that I still lived there.

 

Again, it was a very polite conversation and I came away confident that this whole thing was a mistake that could be easily wiped away once I receive my North Carolina return.

 

 

Resolution (Ongoing)

 

That brings us up to date.  Mary didn’t contact me at my assessment time this past Tuesday so I guess the debt collectors really have been called off.  I mailed my request to North Carolina so I’m just waiting for my return to come, but I don’t at all feel the load that I did over the weekend any longer.

 

My parents were very surprised to find out that I wasn’t being scammed and are now pretty mad at the incompetence of the government.  I think they are just being protective, as I don’t feel too bad about the whole matter.

 

I think it is a little weird that the burden of proof seems to be on me to show that I paid taxes somewhere else in 2009 instead of on Virginia to show that I was a resident, but I guess that’s what you get when the entire tax system is based on self-reporting.  Also, how am I supposed to change my mailing address with every single entity that might have it when I move?  I obviously updated all my information with my important accounts like my financials, but I don’t remember what kind of mail I might have been receiving at my parents’ address after I moved.  I’m sure they didn’t tell me about every piece of junk mail that was sent there for me.  I even switched my driver’s license over to North Carolina the fall that I moved, though as a student I was not required to.  The representative from the Department of Taxation said something along the lines of “Well, you don’t think to tell the state you’re leaving when you move, but…”  Seriously, what else was I supposed to do?  I filed the part-year return!

 

The only thing I guess I have to do after actually sending in the return is to monitor my credit report very closely to make sure this mistaken debt doesn’t show up.  I’m glad that I can work with the Department of Taxation directly to clear up this error, because my and the debt collector’s interests are obviously not aligned in this regard.

 

 

That is my story of being sent to collections for being a tax dodge.  I was very surprised at the emotion this whole experience elicited in me just for being accused of being delinquent on some debt.

 

Have you ever been contacted by a debt collector?  Were you ever falsely accused of doing something wrong?  Does your mailing address, your phone number, your email address, or a social media account feel like the most permanent piece of your contact information?

 

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24 Responses to "Virginia Sent Me to Collections for Dodging Taxes"

  1. Lauren says:

    Earlier this year, I was audited by my home state for nonpayment of taxes in the first full year I lived in NC! With the fine, it was pretty much the same amount you “owe.” Fortunately, .they sent the letter to my parents’ address and it didn’t make it to a collector. It was easily taken care of by emailing a scan of my W2 and NC tax return.

    Not so easily handled was the situation in which the IRS thought my husband owed $25000. Long story, but we ended up paying only a few hundred dollars. But that was scary!

    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad to hear I’m not alone (well, not glad, but… relieved?) and that it was quickly resolved. I think the real problem was that they were unable/not really trying to contact me for so long.

      Did you enlist professional help for your husband’s situation? I was thinking we might if it seemed like we would have to do some investigation.

  2. Ashley says:

    holy cow! that is insane!! I totally agree- why on earth can the govt not get their act together and realize that snail mail is the WORST way to contact people nowadays?! hah.

    You handled it really well- I would be freaked out too if someone called and just started asking for my address and SSN! So weird. Hope it all gets solved quickly and easily!! (or- as quickly and easily as possible 🙂 )
    Ashley recently posted..20 Quick Ways to Save More Money

    1. Emily says:

      I hope you don’t run into the same problem having moved away from VA! Did it occur to you to inform them in any manner??

  3. I have been contacted by a debt collector, but they were just trying to ferret out information about one of my neighbors. When I told them I wouldn’t participate, they got very upset and started to swear at me. Rather than hang up, I put the phone on mute, turned down the volume, and set it down so they could waste their time talking to no one.

    I was contacted by some state years ago about property taxes they thought I owed. Since I was never a resident of that state, nor had I ever owned property there, it was easy to clear up. I don’t know how they got my contact information, though. Perhaps someone used my name as part of a scam. I have never heard anything further about that.
    Bryce @ Save and Conquer recently posted..What I Did With an Older Mac Mini

    1. Emily says:

      I had kind of expected that very rude experience of debt collectors because that’s what I’ve heard so much in the PF community, so my polite interactions were very surprising and welcome. I bet the government only employs the more reputable collectors. I’m sorry that you experienced such harassment just over the contact information about someone else but I like your solution!

      I would be really worried about identity theft if I had never lived in VA. Did you get any credit monitoring or anything?

  4. SarahN says:

    What a drama! As I’m not from the US, I don’t have much to add.

    BUT… I have the ‘collections’ people call me twice in the past 2 years about my mortgage. Both times it’s been for being in arrears to the tune of about $20!! Each time, I asked for a reconciliation of my accounts, and both times they found in my favour (which is to say, they realised that whilst one month’s payment was less, the annual or total paid well covered any arrears in the one month). So annoying that they can’t ‘account’ backwards a little better, but at least I know I track it. Now I’m with a new bank, and so far, not an issue!
    SarahN recently posted..Modesty in dress

    1. Emily says:

      Ugh, how annoying. It’s probably way cheaper for them to hire people to shake you down for money and force you to fight back than to just keep the books well in the first place. Glad your new bank doesn’t seem to have the same practices.

  5. This sounds so frustrating. I’m sorry it happened to you, but glad that you are resolving it – and at least the debt collectors have been polite. Will it all get cleared up once the NC state returns come through?
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..Shopping Mishaps, or Hindsight is 20/20

    1. Emily says:

      The VA rep seemed pretty sure it will be. She didn’t exactly apologize but she seemed kind of perplexed/regretful. I’ll give an update when it’s done.

  6. Alicia says:

    I would have been very skeptical of those calls as well, especially asking of a SIN, or SSN. I didn’t even know governments sent people to collections honestly. I hope everything works out with the direct route of dealing with it.

    My biggest issue with taxes has never been about owing money, but more about getting audited multiple times. I’ve been audited three times since I’ve been an adult. I’m sure it will continue in the future though… Once you’re flagged, you’re flagged for quite some time.
    Alicia recently posted..I’m Planning A Trip.

    1. Emily says:

      I think maybe the debt collectors have more freedom than the government. For example, from my reading about these IRS scams apparently the IRS will NEVER call you on the phone, and also secure email doesn’t exist yet. I don’t know if that also applies to VA, but if it does they really never would have gotten in contact with me without pulling my credit report or going through the NC DMV. I’m not sure why they didn’t do that, but the debt collectors did something to find me that the commonwealth didn’t/couldn’t.

      Man, that sounds terrible. You would think it would be more profitable to audit a larger number of people a smaller number of times to kind of scare everyone.

  7. Kelly says:

    I’m glad it seems to be working out!

    When I moved to PA from VA for grad school, I was told by PA that because I was a student, I was still legally a resident of VA. I actually had to write a letter stating that I intended to live and work in PA once I graduated so that the school would change my status to a PA resident. Really crazy!

    1. Emily says:

      That is so weird! I guess I get it for college but for grad school?!

  8. E 2 says:

    What a saga! It sounds like you handled it really well. If you don’t hear from the collections company again, it might just be good to call and double check that they really have given up instead of “moving forward.” Hope this all gets resolved ASAP.

    1. Emily says:

      That’s a good idea, I’ll do that.

  9. I had debt collectors calling me over $6 I owed for a cancelled, but not cancelled fast enough newspaper subscription. I screamed at the newspaper (the NY Daily News) and paid the bill. I couldn’t believe they took me to collections over $6!

    I’m super paranoid about situations like these. I recently went to an out of network (didn’t realize) medical clinic and saw later that I owed money for the visit. Because mail is not dependable at home, I called the clinic directly asking them how much I need to pay them. I went and paid it myself yesterday as I don’t want a $100 bill from a medical clinic going to collections on me either. Small things like that can really bring down good credit.
    Tara @ Streets Ahead Living recently posted..Cut your losses and run?

    1. Emily says:

      Wow, did you get any warning that your $6 debt was going to collections? At least I had a 4 year grace period!

      That is great that you were proactive about tracking down your medical bill. I wish I had known about this so I could have been proactive…

  10. CA and MA have had no trouble tracking us down and directly contacting us after we moved away from them. No collections agents involved, just paperwork saying yes, we really did owe no taxes because we’d moved.

    My one experience with a collections agency was when my insurance company kept not paying my wisdom tooth bill. I kept getting the bill and submitting it to them and they kept saying they’d take care of it and then they wouldn’t. The nice ladies from the collections agency fixed it all up after I gave them the contact info for the insurance company.
    nicoleandmaggie recently posted..Radical Self-Love: the feels.

    1. Emily says:

      So is this a thing? Telling a state that you don’t live there anymore? A thing I totally didn’t know about? Kyle moved from CA and they didn’t follow up on him. Those two times for you, did you move mid-year or between calendar years?

      What a pain about your insurance company! At least you were able to turn the debt collectors around on the company.

  11. I had a small $400 medical bill go to collections when I was a freshman. I forgot to pay it, and it came back to haunt me. Since I was a broke college student, I arranged for a payment plan with the debt collector. Paid it off over the next year or so.
    SavvyFinancialLatina recently posted..23 Years Old and Counting

    1. Emily says:

      It’s amazing how you are allowed to forget about the debt when it’s still with the original company and then suddenly the debt collectors will not let you forget! I wish they would have put the effort in earlier.

  12. […] nicoleandmaggie and Lauren reassured me that I am not the only one being chased for taxes I don’t owe: […]

  13. […] @ Evolving Personal Finance writes Virginia Sent Me to Collections for Dodging Taxes – I’m in shock – I have a debt collector hounding me for unpaid taxes from five […]

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