DEAR BRUCE: I recently received a communication from a collection agency that which has me perplexed. The collection agency is in New York, but the debt they are trying to collect is owed to what appears to be some sort of education-related division in New Jersey.

I have not lived in New Jersey for 13 years and have not attended school there for nearly 20 years. I have no idea what this sizable $60,000 debt could possibly be.

It does not appear, nor has it ever appeared, on my credit report.

If I have ever received any communication from New Jersey about it, it was in the distant past because I do not remember it.

I have hesitated to contact the collection agency or to take their calls for fear that even if it is a bogus debt that discussing it with them will give them some grounds to claim its legitimacy.

What are my rights here, and how should I proceed with this situation? — Deb, via e-mail

DEAR DEB: About the only thing that goes away if you neglect it are your teeth. You have got to face up to what this may be. You mentioned that you lived in New Jersey 13 years ago and went to school there a couple of decades ago. You say you don’t know what this is about, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a legal obligation.

I would contact the agency and tell the reps there that you have no idea what this claim is about and before you can even address discussing any debt resolution, you must be apprised of these specifics (when this obligation was obtained and how, under what name, the addresses, Social Security numbers, anything that can nail it down). Not answering it does not reduce its potential legitimacy; answering it doesn’t add to its legitimacy.

I would write to them requesting the specifics as I have outlined them. Then you will be in a better position to decide whether you have a problem here and whether it is a legitimate debt.

Send your questions to: Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. E-mail to:

Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns.