Don’t fear the ring.
Debt collector calls can be scary and intimidating — the callers are trained to convince you to pay off your debt as quickly as possible. But what if you’re unsure of whether you even owe the debt or you think they are scams?
You’re not the only one confused or annoyed by the calls. Debt collection complaints claimed the #2 spot on the Federal Trade Commission’s list of consumer complaints in 2018 after topping the list for the previous three years.
However, to save yourself additional stress — along with your money and your credit score — you’re better off answering the phone and opening a line of communication with the collection agency, according to Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Washington, D.C.
“Their efforts to collect the debt will continue regardless of whether you talk to them or not,” McClary said. “It’s better to have a conversation and know what their next steps are going to be rather than guess… and proceed based on the hope that they’re not going to escalate the account or take some type of legal action.”
But if you’re unprepared, a conversation on the phone may leave you flustered — and without any proof of what was discussed. Although email may seem like an easy alternative for dealing with the situation, many financial institutions won’t accept electronic communications.
One way to press the pause button on their aggressive tactics? The U.S. Mail — specifically, you can request that the debt collector send you a debt validation letter. Here’s how.
What Is a Debt Validation Letter?
Third-party debt collectors are required by law to send a debt validation letter to you upon request. The letter must include how much you owe, who you owe it to and what action you can take.
A debt validation letter is a legal document outlined in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a 1977 federal law that provides consumers with legal protection from abusive debt collection practices. The act requires debt collectors to identify themselves and to validate the amount of the debt at the consumer’s request.
Requesting a debt validation is part of the law’s 30-day timeline. Here’s how to follow it to ensure you’re protected.
When to Ask for a Debt Validation Letter
The first call from a debt collector — even if you let it go to voicemail — starts the 30-day clock for your protection under the FDCPA, so it’s in your best interest to respond promptly.
Debt collectors are not permitted to leave a message with any information beyond the account holder’s name and the collector’s contact information, so it’s up to you to ask for details, according to McClary.
If you’re too afraid to even pick up the phone, here are five ways to deal with debt collectors.
Depending on your state, after anywhere from three to 10 years of no payments or activity, a credit card debt is considered past the statute of limitations, meaning you can’t be sued for it.
When you call the collection agency, remain calm and do not provide personal information like your social security number. If the debt collector states inaccurate information — like the account holder has a different last name than you do — do not give them your correct name.
“Sometimes less is more, especially with a debt collector that you may be unsure of,” McClary said. “You don’t want to volunteer any personal identifying information that would make it easier for a scammer who may be posing as a debt collector to steal your identity or to fraudulently use existing accounts that you have.”
Instead, you should request the caller’s name, company, mailing address, phone number and professional license number (depending on your state, the official government website can provide debt collection licensing and bonding requirements).
To ensure you receive the proper documentation, you should request a debt validation letter from the collector in any of the following situations, according to McClary:
You don’t recognize who the debt collector is.
The debt collector’s information about the debt conflicts with your records of the debt.
The debt may be old enough to be beyond the statute of limitations — also known as “zombie debt” because if you make a payment on it, it restarts the statute of limitations and you’re required to pay it again.
You believe the collection attempt may be a scam.
The account in question is not yours.
Most collectors send written notification of the debt within five days of an initial call, but it’s your legal right to request a validation of the debt in writing.
Debt validation letters must contain the amount of the debt you owe, the name of the creditor to whom who owe the debt and what action you must take if you don’t think it’s your debt.
After the collector sends the debt validation letter, you then have 30 days to respond.
What Should You Do When You Receive a Debt Validation Letter?
When you receive the debt validation letter, review the amount and original collector for accuracy. The written communication is also your chance to investigate the debt collection agency for its legitimacy.
It might only take a Google search to discover the caller is a fraud, but you can also contact the original creditor to ask who has been assigned to collect your debt. Additionally, check with your state’s attorney general or department of consumer affairs to find out if there are any complaints against the company.
Scammers will pressure you to pay by money transfer or prepaid card, because these payment methods may be untraceable.
If you’re unsure that the debt is even real, you can get a free copy of your credit report to review it for incorrect or outdated info and contact the original creditor to confirm the amount.
Once you have your facts, you’re ready to write your response, known as a debt verification letter. If you sent a verification letter within the 30-day time period, an agency must cease collection activity until it sends you a verification of the debt or a copy of a court judgment.
You don’t need any fancy letter-writing skills to craft a response — in fact, we have a helpful debt verification letter template to dispute any inaccuracies or outdated info.
And if the company refuses to send a written notice but continues to harass you with phone calls, you should submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the FTC your state’s attorney general and the Better Business Bureau. There’s a good chance you’re not the only victim of their illegal tactics.
And that’s further proof that a debt validation letter puts the power in your hands.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here.