One of the most powerful tools you have under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is to require that a debt collector verify the amount and validity of the debt. In order to do this, however, you must act quickly once you are contacted by the debt collector. This is often referred to interchangeably as debt verification and debt validation.
Normally, the collection agency’s first letter gives you the following information (if it doesn’t, by law it has five days from the initial contact to tell you):
The debt collector may immediately take steps to try to collect the debt, but if you send a written request for verification of the name and address of the original creditor (or dispute the debt), the collection agency must stop its collection efforts and cannot resume them before double-checking the debt information with the original creditor and mailing you the verification, including the original creditor’s name and address. If the debt collector is an attorney, the attorney must stop all collection efforts, but can take legal action, such as filing or continuing a lawsuit. If you receive notice of a lawsuit, make sure your response is timely—the deadline may be different than the 30-day deadline to request verification of the debt. (To learn more about what happens when you are sued for nonpayment of a debt, see Creditor Lawsuits.)
Checking into who the original creditor is may help you decide whether you have grounds to dispute the debt. Collection agencies and original creditors are busy. While verification may seem as if it should take only a simple phone call, it may take several weeks or longer.
Requesting verification is particularly helpful if the debt has been sold. Often debt buyers have little information about the debts they own. (To learn more, see What to Expect When Your Debt Goes to Collection.) They may try to collect the wrong amount or from people with similar names who don’t owe the debt. If the debt collector cannot verify the debt, you may be able to reduce or even eliminate the debt.
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.
This is an excerpt from Nolo's Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Margaret Reiter and Robin Leonard.