Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. But when it comes to debt collection, the sands are of critical importance.
When you get your first letter from a bill collector, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you thirty days to send a notification disputing the bill. Unless you dispute, the collector is generally free to continue collection activities and to communicate with you during the thirty-day “validation period.”
The point of the law, located at 15 U.S.C. § 1692g for those of you who love reading those sorts of things, was to eliminate the problem of collectors trying to get money from the wrong people or attempting to collect debts that the consumer has already paid. The collector, the thinking went, may lack first-hand knowledge of the unpaid balance.
Five Days, Then Thirty
Unless the initial communication with you contains the information, the collector must send you a written “validation notice” within five days of the initial contact – usually a phone call.
The validation notice must contain:
- the amount you allegedly owe;
- the name of the creditor you allegedly owe money to;
- a statement that unless you, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid;
- a statement that if you notify the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such verification or judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector; and
- a statement that, upon the consumer’s written request within the thirty-day period, the debt collector will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
This validation notice gives you some comfort in knowing that the folks trying to get at your money are, in fact, the right ones to be talking with you. If you get a bill from Chase yet you never owed Chase any money, there’s a pretty good chance they’ve got the wrong person.
It happens not infrequently that the wrong person gets a bill. With so many people in the United States carrying the same name, it’s no wonder. Combine that with the incidence of identity theft and you can easily understand where this is all going.
The validation notice and the verification period gives you a clearer picture of where you stand, and whether you’re getting dunned for the right outstanding bill.
It’s All Hands Off From Here
After receiving a validation notice, you get thirty days to mail a notice to the collector disputing the bill or requesting the name and address of the original creditor.
Once you do, the FDCPA requires that the collection agency must “cease collection of the debt, or any disputed portion thereof” until the collector verifies the debt or obtains the name and address of the original creditor and “a copy of such verification … or name and address of the original creditor, is mailed to the consumer by the debt collector.”
Again, the point is to make sure you’re not being forced to pay someone else’s bill. Though the other person may be glad to have you do so, it’s definitely not in your best interest to pay when it’s not your responsibility. If the collection agency were still hounding you, you’d be more likely to send them some money if only to make the calls stop.
No Overshadowing, Please
Though collection agencies are allowed to keep trying to collect during the validation period, those activities and communications aren’t allowed to “overshadow” or “contradict” the validation notice.
In other words, if a collection agent contacts you during the 30-day period then he or she needs to be very careful not to overshadow or be inconsistent with the disclosure of your right to dispute or request the name and address of the original creditor.
Every Grain Counts
The collector needs to do certain things within 5 days, and you get 30 days to return the volley. If you don’t take advantage of your rights within 30 days, the presumption is that you don’t dispute the debt. You’ll still have those defenses if you’re sued for payment, but it’s a far better idea to get the full story when you’ve got the chance to do so.
It’s a good idea to make a note of the date and time of every collection call, if only to know when the 5-day meter starts running. Then, once you get the validation notice you should immediately read it and send out your dispute if you’re not sure the bill is yours.
It takes only a stamp and a few minutes of your time to protect your rights now, as opposed to thousands of dollars and a lot of time later.
You may not be thrilled to have to go through this, but you’ll be glad you did later on.