One of the most powerful tools you have under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is to require that a debt collector verify the amount and validity of the debt it's trying to collect. But to validate the debt, you must act quickly once the debt collector contacts you.
Normally, the collection agency gives you specific information in its first letter, which is generally called a "debt validation notice," including:
If the initial communication doesn't contain this information, by law, the agency has five days from the initial contact to provide it to you. (15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)). The notice can be written or electronic. (An oral notification is allowed when you're first contacted, but not later. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.34(a).)
Usually, the debt collector may immediately take steps to try to collect the debt. But if you send a written request for verification of the debt and the name and address of the original creditor, the collection agency must stop its collection efforts and can't resume them before double-checking the debt information and mailing you the verification, including the original creditor's name and address.
During the 30-day period, the collector can continue attempts to collect the debt from you until they get your validation request. So, debt collectors generally can take legal action, like filing or continuing a lawsuit, during the 30-day period for disputing a debt, provided the collection activity does not overshadow and is not inconsistent with the consumer's right to dispute. (15 U.S.C. § 1692g(b)). If you receive notice of a lawsuit, make sure your response is timely—the deadline might be different than the 30-day deadline to request verification of the debt.
Checking into who the original creditor is might help you decide whether you have grounds to dispute the debt. Also, collection agencies and original creditors are busy. While verification might seem as if it should be easy, it might take several weeks or longer. Requesting verification is particularly helpful if the debt has been sold, especially if it has changed hands more than once. Often, debt buyers have little information about the debts they own. They might try to collect the wrong amount or from people with similar names who don't owe the debt. If the debt collector can't verify what you owe, you might be able to reduce or even eliminate the debt.
But if you don't dispute the validity of the debt (or part of it) or don't request the original creditor's name and address within 30 days of receiving the first collection letter, the agency can assume the debt is valid and continue collection efforts during the 30 days and after. The debt collector has a right to use all legal collection efforts against you.
To request verification, send a letter to the collection agency stating that you dispute the validity of the debt and that you want documentation verifying the debt. Also, request the name and address of the original creditor. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides a sample debt validation letter (click on the "I need more information about this debt" letter on the CFPB website) that you can tailor to your particular situation.
If a debt collector violates the FDCPA and you sue the collector in court, you might be able to recover different types of damages, including monetary damages, attorneys' fees, and more. (15 U.S. Code § 1692k). Or you could have a defense or counterclaim if the collector sues you. If you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when trying to collect a debt from you, consider talking to an attorney to get advice about your options.