For many people, a call from a debt collector about a past due or delinquent account with no prior communication may signal that they’re dealing with a debt collection scammer. If you haven’t received any of the letters they say they sent—or didn’t know the debt existed in the first place—you might assume it’s not correct information. But another factor could be at play. Perhaps you simply didn’t get the mailed notices.
Just because you didn’t receive the notices doesn’t necessarily mean you’re off the hook for the debt. But you do have rights under the law. Find out what to do if you’re suddenly dealing with an unexpected collections account.
Always Request Validation of the Debt
First, make sure that the debt is actually yours. Older debts might’ve been bought multiple times by various collection agencies. That increases the likelihood of data being misconstrued and debts being assigned to the incorrect party. You also want to make sure the debt isn’t part of an identity theft issue because you didn’t know about it already.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives consumers the right to request verification or validation of a debt. The process may start when you get a phone call from a debt collector. Within five days, the debt collector must mail you a notice with information about the debt. They must also include an explanation of your rights.
If the initial contact from the debt collection agency is by mail, the notice should contain all the information mentioned above. However the first notice occurs, you have 30 days to request validation of the debt.
Once you ask for debt validation, the collection agency 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 and by whom the original debt was incurred.
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 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
What if You Missed the Original Debt Collection Letter?
What if you don’t get the letter that triggers the 30-day deadline for requesting validation of the debt? According to National Consumer Law Center staff attorney April Kuehnhoff, the burden of proof in this case might fall on you. If the debt collector can show a letter was mailed in the course of normal business, you may need to prove it wasn’t mailed to the right address.
However, if the debt collector sent it to the wrong address and the letter was returned to the collection agency as undeliverable, there’s a good chance the collector didn’t fulfill the requirements of the law. That’s especially true if the collector can’t prove it updated the address and delivered the notice as required.
“Even if the letter is not returned,” says Kuehnhoff, “the debt collector may not have complied with the FDCPA if the letter is mailed to the wrong address. That’s especially true if the individual never lived at that address or hasn’t lived there for years.”
Michael Bovee, founder of the self-help website Consumer Recovery Network, says many legitimate debt collectors often treat random or unprovoked debt validation requests as if they were timely requests in response to collection notices. So, you have nothing to lose by requesting a validation of the debt even if you missed the initial notice.
Can a Company Send You to Collections Without Notice?
In some cases, you can end up in collections without receiving a notice about the original bill. This is rare, but it can legally happen.
However, it’s critical to understand your rights so you know how debts should impact your credit report. If someone never sent you a bill and you pay as soon as you are contacted about a collection, an argument can be made that you are not delinquent on the payment, for example.
How Do I Know If I’ve Been Sent to Collections?
One way to reduce the confusion and stress related to a sudden collections activity is to keep an eye on your own credit report. You can see if lenders think you owe them money. That way if a debt collector does call, you aren’t caught off guard. You also know if the debt is unlikely to be yours because it never showed up on your credit report.
Triaging Your Credit Report
Whether you find something incorrect when you check your creditor you’re dealing with a collection account without receiving any prior notice, you likely have options. The law affords you a right to a fair, accurate credit report. You can work with credit repair firms to dispute inaccurate items, potentially including collections accounts where you received no appropriate notification of the debt.
If you’re looking for a little extra help with your credit, take a look at ExtraCredit. It has five killer features all targeted towards your credit needs, including Restore It, which connects you to trusted repair leaders. ExtraCredit can help get you where you want to go.