Let’s say you canceled your Verizon contract in 2015, but you just received a phone call from a collections agency that you owe $180 for an outstanding bill.
Don't flip out. Make sure you know your rights — and have a paper trail — before you pay the debt collectors a single penny.
There are two important steps in the debt collections process: the debt validation letter and the debt verification letter.
The first time a collections agency reaches out to you, it must provide you with a debt validation letter, informing you of your right to validate whether the debt is yours and if it’s the right amount.
In turn, you are permitted to ask for proof that you have to pay the debt. What you're seeking is called a debt verification letter, and it's one of your rights as a consumer under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.
These protections are in place to make sure you don’t end up paying for an account you’ve already settled, paying more than you owe, or falling victim to a debt collections scam.
The debt validation letter
When you receive a first call from a collections agency (known as the initial contact), the agency has five business days to notify you, in writing, of your right to investigate the validity of the debt. This is known as a debt validation letter, and it should outline:
- How much you owe.
- The company or creditor seeking payment.
- A statement that says the debt is valid unless disputed within 30 days.
- A statement that says you have the legal right to verify the debt within 30 days of the initial contact, and that the collections agency must provide that verification.
The debt verification letter
Let's say that five years ago, you were in the hospital and received a medical bill for $1,600. You paid it off and never thought about it again.
Today, you received a notice in the mail that you owe the hospital an extra $800, and the amount has gone to collections. Something seems fishy.
Don’t feel pressured to pay it just to make collections go away. You have the legal right to send a debt verification letter. A debt verification letter (template below) is a simple document that says, “Hey, what’s this debt? Do you have any proof that I have to pay this?”
Here’s when to write a debt verification letter:
- You never received a debt validation letter.
- You’re not sure the debt is yours.
- You want to ensure that the debt is the correct amount.
Even if you’re certain that the debt is yours, it’s always a good idea to get debt verification in writing to make sure you’re not being overcharged or that the debt isn’t nearing its statute of limitations.
Mistakes on debt collections happen all the time, which is why writing a debt verification letter is an extra safety precaution to protect you, your money and your credit score.
How to write a debt verification letter
First, make sure you send your debt verification letter via certified mail, so that a real person will be required to sign for it in order to receive it.
This is the old-school version of a "read receipt," and it prevents the debt collections agency from claiming that your letter got lost in the mail.
Second, remember that debt verification is time sensitive. You have only 30 days after the initial contact to send a debt verification letter, so don't wait until the last minute. After the 30 days, you may not be protected under consumer and debt collections laws.
Here’s a simple template for debt verification:
Debt collector’s name
Re: [Account number here]
This letter is sent in response to [a letter/phone call] received by you on [date you received the letter/call]. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, I am requesting that you provide verification of this debt and provide valid proof that I owe the debt.
To avoid litigation, I am requesting that you verify the debt with the required documents.
Within your letter, ask the following questions:
- How much is owed and how the amount was calculated.
- The original creditor’s name and address.
- If the statute of limitations has expired on the debt.
- If there is any documentation detailing that you agreed to pay the debt.
- If the collections agency is licensed to collect debt in your state.
End the letter with:
If your office fails to respond to this validation request within 30 days, this account must be deleted and removed from my credit file.
You can add to the above, but keep in mind that debt collections agencies are only required to provide you with:
- Information as it relates to the amount owed.
- The creditor who is seeking collection.
- The name of the person seeking repayment.
These details are important for determining whether the debt has expired or is nearing its statute of limitations, if there was an error and you were overcharged, or if the debt in question actually belongs to you.
If you send the letter before your 30-day deadline, the debt collector is required to respond and must stop pursuing payment until it verifies that the debt is really yours.
If you’re dealing with an aggressive debt collections agency, remember that you have rights. Debt collections companies are not allowed to call you more than twice a week, and they will never ask for personal information over the phone.
If a bill collector is badgering you to divulge sensitive information, like your date of birth or Social Security number, hang up and block the caller's phone number. It’s a scam.
If the collections agency refuses to send a debt validation or debt verification letter, or if it's still harrassing you while the debt is in dispute, you don't have to tolerate the abuse — you have the right to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.