Consumers around the country are complaining that Afni, Inc., a debt collection agency, has been calling and mailing, demanding that consumers pay old Verizon telephone debts, some of them as much as 10 years old.

But consumer advocates say that many of the debts are so old that, under the statute of limitations, consumers are not required to pay and the debt may not be reported to credit agencies.

"I have just received a bill from Afni stating I owe on an old Verizon account in the amount of $90.86 and that they will settle for $45.43." wrote Diana of Madera, Calif. "The account number they claim is for a Verizon phone number.

"This is very interesting because I have never had Verizon," Diana said. "I have never had this bill show up on any past credit reports. So I checked my current credit reports and found them listing that I owe them. I paid for a search on the phone number they listed and I am not connected to that number. I called Verizon California Inc. and spoke to Eric. He said that it wasn't even a Verizon number and they had no records of me on any account!"

Diana's complaint is similar to the others has received in a little over a year. In almost every case the debts are many years old while consumers say they never had the accounts in question and have never been a Verizon customer.

But Verizon and Afni spokespeople say the debts are real and that if people don't pay up, their credit could be damaged.

Defunct companies

The reason most consumers say they never were a Verizon customer, is likely because they weren't, but they may have been a customer with one of the many companies that became Verizon, said Bill Kula, Verizon spokesman. Verizon took over many companies through mergers and acquisitions that include Bell Atlantic, MCI, Nynex, GTE and other companies.

Along with those mergers came millions of delinquent accounts which Verizon sold to Afni over the past year and a half. And even though the acquired companies no longer exist, Afni insists the debts have survived intact.

Both Kula and Deborah Ciskey, Afni's director of compliance, said consumers are probably "confused" because the debts are from a service with an older carrier. Kula said many people who purchased dial-up Internet many years ago from their old phone company may be getting these bills and just forgot that that they did have a delinquent account with MCI, for example.

However, some consumers say there is no mistake and they have no debt with any phone company.

"I received a collection notice from Afni Inc., stating I owe them $280.05 for a disconnected phone service for 718-584-5895," wrote Pamela of Danbury, Conn. "I have never owned that telephone number. Also, on the notice, it states that the original creditor is Bell Atlantic. I never had phone service with Bell Atlantic."

Consumers say that despite their protestations, that Afni posts the debt to credit agencies.

Successful suit

Joe Mullaney, an attorney who successfully sued Afni for using potentially illegal means to collect on a debt, said consumers should not pay these debts if they believe they are not legitimate, no matter how insistent Afni is.

"People are paying these debts and they don't even owe it," Mullaney said.

Although Kula said the vast majority of the debts are two to three years old, some consumers say they are as old as 13 years, yet the company appears to be persistent no matter how old the debt.

Statute of limitations

Regardless of Afni's persistence, if the debts are seven years or older, the statute of limitations on the debt has expired meaning Afni has very limited enforcement capabilities to collect on these old debts, Mullaney said.

"Federal Courts ... have opined that generally a debt collector may ask you to pay a debt if it is time-barred by the statute of limitations," Mullaney said.

But all the collector can do is politely ask consumers to pay, he said. There is no requirement that they do so.

Similar time limitations exist for debt reporting, Mullaney said. A debt that is seven years or older cannot negatively affect a consumer's credit score.

Mullaney said Afni threatened to report his client's 8-year-old debt to the credit bureaus and his client went ahead and paid for fear of damaging her credit even though there was no way a credit bureau could post that to her report.

"Debt collectors know that one of the most powerful tools of wrenching payment out of consumers is to report them to the credit bureaus," Mullaney said. "The reason for that is because people have an irrational protection of their credit report when in fact they should be protecting their rights."

Mullaney and his client won their case and received a settlement of about $4,300, he said.

"I take the position under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act which says that the debt collector cannot make deceptive statements or false statements," Mullaney said.

The office of the Illinois Attorney General currently has an active investigation into Afni, said office spokeswoman Natalie Bauer. She could give no further details but said the office has received "around 900" complaints over the past eight years.

Consumers who wish to take legal action against Afni should find a local attorney through the National Association of Consumer Advocates website, Mullaney said. Consumers should also file complaints with the Illinois Attorney General.