Credit cards are displayed in Montreal, Wednesday, December 12, 2012. Zombie debt will inevitably come back to haunt Canadians because of the country’s scourge of consumer indebtedness, say insolvency experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Credit cards are displayed in Montreal, Wednesday, December 12, 2012. Zombie debt will inevitably come back to haunt Canadians because of the country’s scourge of consumer indebtedness, say insolvency experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Zombie debt will haunt more Canadians as scourge of indebtedness rises: experts

Total debt per consumer has surged to $71,979 in the second quarter

Canadians with old debts beware: a momentary slip or lack of knowledge of your legal rights could results in past debts rising from the dead and coming back to haunt you.

Zombie debt — old accounts that may have been written off as “uncollectable” and which have passed the statute of limitations — is expected to increase due to Canada’s high level of consumer indebtedness, say insolvency experts.

Canadians have taken advantage of cheap money, with total debt per consumer surging to $71,979 in the second quarter, up from about $57,000 five years earlier, according to credit monitoring service Equifax.

Delinquencies are expected to rise once interest rates eventually climb and put stress on the ability of some borrowers to make payments.

“[Debt] is increasing faster. So I would be concerned that there is a jump in people who are finding themselves unable to pay their debts,” says Julie Kuzmic, Equifax Canada’s director of consumer advocacy.

That would lead to more accounts going to collection agencies and aging even after the original creditor loses interest in collecting.

“As you get a higher consumer debt level, more and more of those — just by the sheer statistics alone — are going to be older debts,” says Scott Terrio, manager of consumer insolvency at Hoyes, Michalos & Associates, a Toronto-based company specializing in insolvency.

Statute of limitations laws across the country protect consumers from lawsuits if their unsecured debt hasn’t been repaid within the allotted time.

The statute of limitations is two years in Ontario, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, B.C., P.E.I. and Saskatchewan. It’s three years in Quebec, and jumps to six years in the remaining provinces and territories. The federal limitation is six years.

The timelines mean creditors and collections agencies can’t go to court after that period of time to force payment.

But that won’t keep aggressive collection agencies at bay. Debt remains on a person’s credit file for six years and technically doesn’t ever vanish entirely.

Efforts to collect old debt can resurface after it is sold to a new collections agency for cents on the dollar.

Successfully pressuring just a few unwitting debtors to make a payment could be enough to make the exercise profitable for them.

“If I collect from one person, I can probably cover 10 or 20 files because I’ve only paid five cents or something,” Terrio said.

Zombie debt comes in many forms, including legitimate debts that have been forgotten or ignored, scenarios where innocent parties share the same name of a debtor, or cases of identity theft or computer error.

It involves unsecured credit from credit cards, lines of credit, phone bills and the like. It does not apply to secured debt such as mortgages and money owed to government for income tax, property tax, fines, outstanding health care premiums and student loans.

Old debt becomes zombie debt when a debtor acknowledges the money owing after the statute of limitations has lapsed, said David Gowling, senior vice-president with MNP Debt, one of Canada’s largest insolvency practices.

“That can resurrect it and now you’re starting your whole statute of limitations all over again.”

Some cases of zombie debt border on the absurd. Collections agents hounded one person a few years ago for money owed to Eaton’s, even though the department store folded 20 years ago, said Gowling.

READ MORE: Bankruptcies in British Columbia on the rise

Experts advise debtors not to acknowledge debt and if threatened with a lawsuit, tell the caller to send proof of the debt. Chances are they can’t and won’t bother because the statute of limitations has passed for seeking a judgment.

While some actions by debtors could get the clock ticking again on the statute of limitations, it usually requires that a person acknowledge their debt in writing, said Lee Akazaki, partner with Gilbertson Davis LLP, a Toronto-based law firm.

That could include replying to an email agreeing that the debtor owes the money.

Responding with “I don’t owe money because that’s an old debt” is not an acknowledgment.

“It just means you used to owe the money but you don’t anymore,” he said.

Laurie Campbell, CEO of Credit Canada, a non-profit debt consolidation and credit counselling agency, has never come across old debt restarting the statute of limitations countdown clock.

She worries that people afraid of being sued will unnecessarily seek a bankruptcy trustee.

“People should not be running to see a trustee outside of that two-year window because they’re going to pay fees for something that may never come about anyway,” she said in an interview.

Campbell said some people feel a moral obligation to repay debts even though they legally can’t be forced to do so.

She advises against taking a knee-jerk reaction.

“Make sure you get the right advice before you make a decision that could harm you in the long-run.”

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Johns used her lunch break to film her audition video for the Vancouver Canucks.
VIDEO: Former Vees anthem singer wants to bring her voice to the Canucks

Crystal Johns made her audition tape during a lunch break

Flooding has become a reality for many communities in the Okanagan Valley as the region faces more extreme weather storms, blamed on the impact of climate change. (File photo)
Okanagan high target for spring flooding

Higher snowpack and mild winter precipitation levels raise concerns for Canada’s insurance industry

The Village of Keremeos is preparing to open up the village to in-province travellers as the province enters Phase 3 of its reopening plan. (Brennan Phillips - Keremeos Review)
Electric vehicle use continues to rise in Keremeos

August saw 147 vehicles for the peak of the year

The Okanagan Regional Library is holding a pair of online contests for its young readers. (File photo)
Okanagan Regional Library challenges young readers

Pair of contests online aimed at kids aged up to 18

Penticton Real Canadian Superstore
New COVID case at Penticton Superstore

The last day the employee worked was Jan. 21

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Auldin Maxwell stacks the 693rd block on the top of record-breaking Jenga tower on Nov. 29. (Submitted)
Salmon Arm boy rests world-record attempt on single Jenga brick

Auldin Maxwell, 12, is now officially a Guinness world record holder.

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

A Dodge Ram pickup similar to this one was involved in a hit-and-run in Lake Country on Saturday, Jan. 16. (Crime Stoppers photo)
Stolen truck involved in Okanagan hit-and-run

Incident happened on Highway 97 in Lake Country just before 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

Kelowna Fire Department. (FILE)
Early morning downtown Kelowna dumpster fire deemed suspicious

RCMP and the Kelowna Fire Department will conduct investigations into the cause of the blaze

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Most Read