If a collector contacts you regarding a debt that's old or that you don't think you owe, you can protect yourself by taking the following steps:
Don't talk to them. If you are contacted by telephone, hang up. You don't want to inadvertently provide the collector with useful collection information -- or worse, say something that reaffirms the debt. All communication should be done through the mail.
Request validation. You have the right to request verification of the debt from the collector. You can make this request in a letter sent via certified mail within 35 days of the initial contact by the collector. The collector must respond with documents showing 1) that you owe the debt, 2) the amount of the debt, and 3) that the collector is authorized to collect it.
Research the company. Before you hang up the phone, get a company name and address from the collector. Then investigate the company online. You may find out that the company is not a law firm (as it might assert) or that hundreds of other consumers have complained about its debt collection practices in the past.
Don't revive the debt. Whatever you do, don't admit (verbally or in writing) that you owe the debt, and don't make any payments towards the debt until you figure out whether it's actually yours -- and whether the statute of limitations has run. If you make even a small "good faith" payment, you may revive the debt and reset the statute of limitations. If the statute of limitations has run, the collector cannot use the courts or other judicial enforcement procedures to collect the debt. (For state-by-state statutes of limitations on different types of debt, see Nolo's Chart: Statutes of Limitations in All 50 States.)
Don't ignore a lawsuit. If you receive a summons and complaint, don't ignore it. Get independent contact information for the court in which it is filed (don't use the contact information on the lawsuit -- if it's a bogus lawsuit, the number will be bogus too) and find out if the lawsuit is real. Act quickly. If you have been sued for the debt, you have a limited period of time in which to respond. If you fail to respond, you could forfeit your right to fight the lawsuit.
Know your rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) governs what debt collectors can and cannot do. Become familiar with the law and your rights under the FDCPA. (To learn about the FDCPA, see Nolo's article What to Do If a Bill Collector Crosses the Line.)
Tell the collector to stop contacting you. Under the FDCPA, if you send a letter requesting that a collector cease all communication with you, it must do so. There are exceptions to this no-contact rule. The collector can get in touch in order to notify you that it is ending its collection efforts or to tell you that it intends to sue you.
Watch your credit report. Check all three of your credit reports regularly to see if a zombie debt collector has illegally reported an old debt to a credit bureau. (To learn how to do this, see Nolo's article How to Clean Up Your Credit Report.) For a primer on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and tips on stopping unscrupulous debt collection practices, get Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Robin Leonard and Attorney Margaret Reiter (Nolo).
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