Anna Gonzales remembers the day paramedics rushed her from work to the hospital.
“It was so bumpy, and I was in so much pain,” she said.
That was more than two years ago. But back in July, Anna got a letter from a debt collector called Credence demanding almost $1,600 for the ambulance ride. And that was before she had ever seen a bill.
“Nobody’s called me, nobody’s contacted me,” she said. “I’ve sent in my insurance information; why haven’t they done anything?”
She’s not alone.
“That’s exactly what I’m going through,” said Wai Kim Wong, a San Jose teacher’s aide.
Wong was in a car crash more than two years ago, yet he just recently received a demand from Credence for $1,600 that he supposedly owed the ambulance company, Rural/Metro.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I never had any news from Rural/Metro about a bill or anything.”
Twenty-five Bay Area consumers have told us they were in a similar bind.
More than people 70 contacted our sister station in San Diego to share the same story: They also received a notice from the debt collector before they ever saw a bill -- and after it was too late to file an insurance claim.
“They hadn’t processed it through insurance. It was just an unpaid bill they dumped on collections,” said NBC Sand Diego viewer Susan Rillie.
We asked Rural/Metro, the ambulance company, for an explanation. It declined our request for an interview. In a statement, a spokesman acknowledged an error, though he wouldn’t tell us how many people were mistakenly sent to collections.
“The billing issue resulted from a processing change that was made when Rural/Metro came out of bankruptcy,” he said.
We also had questions for Credence, the debt collector, because consumers told us no one there believed their story, and they were simply instructed to pay.
“That was the only way out,” Wong said.
A Credence compliance officer said Rural/Metro vouched that the debts were legitimate. That’s why its call centers told people to pay. But, Credence says it later saw a pattern to people’s objections and stopped collections. Credence says it has “returned the portfolio” of Rural/Metro accounts.
We forwarded the 25 complaints we received to Rural/Metro. A specialist reviewed each one, then closed all of them, erasing almost $35,000 in debts.
That included Gonzales’s $1,573 balance and Wong’s $1,655 balance.
“I'm just so happy about it, and that I called you,” Wong said. “You guys have helped me completely.”
Getting the debt erased was only half the challenge. Next, we needed to make sure the patients’ credit reports were clear.
We pressed both Rural/metro and Credence about whether this billing error would stain people’s credit history. In a statement, the Credence compliance officer said they would not.
“On the Rural/Metro accounts that you inquired about we did not credit report any of those accounts,” he said.
That’s reassuring news for Wong, because he made a payment to the debt collector to protect his credit score.
“To have a bad credit score will affect everything in your life,” he said.
Anna is also relieved that her credit history is clear. But she’s questioning what would have happened if we hadn’t spoken up for patients like her.
“Why couldn’t we do this on our own,” she asked.
Credence called this kind of mistake “rare.” Rural/Metro told us it has “instituted new procedures to ensure it does not happen again.”
We asked Rural/Metro if it sent out a blanket notice about the mistake. In response, it said it is handling disputes on a case by case basis – using a special email address. You can send collections concerns directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.