I Never Knew I Had a Debt in Collections. What Are My Rights?

Imagine this scenario: You get a phone call from a debt collector, who tells you they’ve reached out a few times to get you to pay a debt. But you never got any letters or phone calls and maybe you didn’t even know the debt existed in the first place.

For a lot of savvy consumers, this may signal that they’re dealing with a debt collection scammer, but it could be for a more logical reason — you just didn’t get the notice.

We’ve had several Credit.com commenters lately ask us how long they have after their “dunning notice,” which has to be sent via mail within five days of their first phone contact with a collector, to ask for validation of the debt.

One commenter said he worked on a ship and did not receive mail (or presumably phone calls) when the letter informing him of the debt collection arrived.

What the Law Requires

Here’s a little background. In the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Congress gave consumers the right to request verification (also referred to as “validation”) of a debt.

Ordinarily, this process starts when you get a phone call from a debt collector. Within five days, the debt collector must mail you a notice with specific information about the debt they say you owe, and an explanation of your rights. If the initial contact is by mail, the notice should contain that information.

That letter triggers your rights, giving you 30 days to request validation of the debt. Once you have asked for it, the collector must stop collection efforts until it has fulfilled your request. (The bar for what constitutes validation of debt is fairly low, but you should at least receive information on when the original debt was incurred and to whom.) Whether it’s 10 days or 10 months before the collector responds, attempts to collect have to stop.

This right is considered significant; in fact, even if the debt collector unintentionally fails to comply with this part of the law, it has violated the FDCPA. And timing is everything: That first notice from the creditor must come within five days of the initial contact and after that the consumer has 30 days to initiate the verification process.

Unfortunately, these initial notices may look like junk mail and consumers sometimes overlook them.

Credit.com contributor Michael Bovee, founder of the self-help website Consumer Recovery Network, says it is smart to request validation of the debt. The worst that can happen is you’ll be in the same shape you were before you requested it. And the best? “In some instances where a debt collector has limited or poor access to the documentation, or other media substantiating your debt, they will stop trying to collect from you. You may even prevent collectors with shoddy records from suing you,” he said.

If No Letter Comes

But what if you don’t get the letter that triggers all these deadlines?

According to National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) staff attorney April Kuehnhoff, if a consumer says they didn’t get the initial notice, and the debt collector can show they likely mailed it in the course of their normal business, the burden of proof may be on the consumer to establish that the initial notice was not sent to the right address. But if the debt collector sent it to the wrong address and was returned to the collector as undeliverable to the consumer, then there’s a good chance the collector did not fulfill the requirements of the law if it didn’t update the address and deliver the notice as required. “Even if the letter is not returned, the debt collector may not have complied with the FDCPA if the letter is mailed to the wrong address, especially if the individual never lived at that address or hasn’t lived there for years,” she said by email.

She also notes that if the consumer does not request verification within 30 days after receiving the initial notice of his or her rights, the debt collector is not required to provide verification.

But Bovee says that because of pending federal changes to debt collection rules, legitimate debt collectors are often treating random or unprovoked debt validation requests (where no collection phone call was even made) as if they were timely requests in response to normal collection notices. So you have nothing to lose by requesting a validation of the debt even if you are not doing so within 30 days of receiving the initial notice.

He suggested getting in touch with the original creditor and trying to track down who actually owns (if your debt was sold), or is collecting the debt for your creditor. Because the last thing you want to do is to pay the wrong person — and have that unpaid collection item continue to hurt your credit score. You may also find information on who’s attempting to collect from you by checking your free annual credit reports. You can also get a free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com to watch for changes to your report.

Finally, if you request validation within 30 days and the collector doesn’t provide it, or if you otherwise believe a debt collector is breaking the law, you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or contact a consumer law attorney for help.

Related Articles:

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Gerri Detweiler was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.