Debt Collectors and Invalid Debts

There are two things most people want when a debt collector calls: get them off the phone, and get them out of your life. But if the collector happens to be calling about an invalid debt, you should be looking for a third thing: the opportunity to get ahead.

Most collection calls are about debts that are valid. I may not like how much the collector says I owe on the credit card I forgot about last year, but if I sat down and calculated the interest, I’d probably find out he was right. But if he calls me about a credit card I never had, or about a bill so old that the statute of limitations (more on that in a minute) has expired, then that’s an entirely different matter. It isn’t just that the amount is wrong; I have no reason to pay on the darn thing.

A statute of limitation is something in the law that says how soon someone has to sue me to recover from me for something I did. I live in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area. Everyone loves the Suns, and their mascot, the Gorilla. If I write something that slanders the Gorilla and publish it today, and the Gorilla waits to sue me until a year from tomorrow, I just tell the court that the statute of limitations has run out, and the Gorilla gets nothing.

It’s the same with credit card debts and medical bills. If they don’t take you to court in a certain period off time (which varies based on why you owe the bill and where you are), then they can’t make you pay.

So if the debt collector calls you and tells you to pay a bill you incurred twenty years ago, chances are the statute of limitations has run out and he can’t make you pay.

Getting him off your back should be easy, except for the fact that people who try to collect on debts like that are pretty desperate. Collecting on these kinds of debts is pretty ridiculous. Even the Bible says that if you lend someone money and you don’t get it back in seven years, you don’t get it back ever.

The thing to do is use the debt collector’s desperation to your advantage. As soon as they call and you’ve determined that the debt isn’t valid, ask them to hold on and go get a piece of paper. Then go get a piece of paper and a pen so you can make some notes.

First, ask the person on the other end of the phone what his or her name is. Then get the name of the company. Then get the address. Then get their internal file or account number.

If they won’t give you the information, ask them if they are refusing to provide the information. Regardless of what they say, don’t move to the next point until you get the information.

And keep your cool. It will drive them nuts, which increases the chance they will do something foolish.

After the conversation ends, make sure your notes are clear. Then write them a letter that outlines why you don’t owe the bill and request a copy of the proof that you do. Then make a copy of the letter and send it to them. Do not send it registered or certified mail. That just slows things down, and what counts now is when they get that letter. If, like Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, it absolutely, positively has to get their overnight, send it Federal Express or some other form of overnight mail. If you’re more frugal (or as my wife says of me, cheap) send it Priority Mail through the post office with a tracking number. Either way, you’ll have proof that it gets there, and when it gets there is key.

If they call you again, you just won the big prize. Write down all the same information (who called, company name, phone number and address) and sit down at your computer and search for “Attorneys who sue collection agencies.” Find one in your state and call them up and make an appointment. Take all your documentation with you.

That’s because debt collectors are governed by a Federal law call the “Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” There are state laws that provide the same kinds of protections, and all of them say that if you do things right and the collection agency does things wrong, you get money.

And that, my dear friends, is how to handle debt collectors who try to collect invalid debts.