What exactly is in a name? That was the $25,000 question for Peter D. Whitford, who has lived in Rockville, Maryland for 35 years.
The 73-year-old former conservationist got jolted from retirement after a recent walk to the mailbox.
"I had to read through it two or three times. They were talking about a plaintiff and a defendant and foreign judgment," he told the News4 I-Team.
Whitford had received a foreign default judgment, stating he owed more than $25,000. His address was right there in writing. His name was listed as the defendant.
But the problem was, he had never heard of the plaintiff, a guy in California. "Well I thought it was some sort of a fraud," he said.
Good thing he didn’t just toss the mail in the trash, because it turned out to be real. However, the I-Team found this judgment was for a different Peter D. Whitford, 2,600 miles away in Pasadena, California.
"People getting judgments in the wrong name recorded against them is not uncommon," said consumer advocate attorney Peter Holland.
Holland said he hears about cases like this all the time. "So somebody could have pulled a credit report and this person's file got mixed with that. It says, they now live in Maryland. It could have been as simple as a Google or you know a person search. We just don't know."
Unfortunately, Holland said, it falls on the person who gets the letter to prove they're not the actual defendant. Otherwise, the court could start garnishing wages and bank accounts -- even take your home.
That’s what scared Whitford the most, and why he called the I-Team to figure out what he could do.
"My wife and I have been married for fifty-two years and it took that long to build up a nice credit rating. And build this house, which is almost paid for. This would just vacate our savings," he said.
Whitford eventually decided, with help from a friend who is an attorney, to file his own motion to dismiss the judgment. When the I-Team contacted the attorney for the plaintiff in the case, he told us he, too, had filed a motion and that the case had been dismissed.
He couldn’t tell us what led to the mistaken identity.
It took the I-Team less than ten minutes to track down the West Coast Peter Whitford, who runs an LLC listed at a large estate in Pasadena, California. He told us he had no idea about any lawsuit or judgment against him.
But he told us by phone he is familiar with the plaintiff, who, according to him, did some work for his company. He denied owing any money. Public records show the plaintiff is also based in Los Angeles area.
Holland said the mistake could be an indication of a bigger problem with mixed-up credit histories between the Peter Whitfords. "Somehow his name has been connected with someone on the opposite coast," he said. That’s why Holland recommended everyone request their credit reports every year to check for inaccuracies.
That’s something the local Peter Whitford is now looking into, hoping to avoid another surprise in the mail.
"If you get something like this, take it seriously," he said.