A collection agency can’t force you to dispute the debt in writing. You can do it verbally, too.
I tell my clients that it’s best for them to send a letter and keep a copy, if only so they can prove the dispute if they need to later on. That’s just a choice I made long ago.
Though the courts in California have come down on the side of the consumer in holding that a debt collector can’t require disputes to be made in writing, it seems as if the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to make a finer distinction.
In the case of Riggs v. Prober & Rafael, Joanne Riggs received a collection letter that said, in part:
Please be advised that if you notify my office in writing within 30 days that all or a part of your obligation or judgment to FIRESIDE BANK is disputed, then I will mail to you written verification of the obligation or judgment and the amounts owed to FIRESIDE BANK. In addition, upon your written request within 30 days of receipt of this letter, I will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
If I do not hear from you within 30 days, I will assume that your debt to FIRESIDE BANK is valid.
Riggs then filed a lawsuit against the collector, alleging that the letter required her to dispute her debt in writing, in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692g(a)(3) and California Civil Code § 1788.17. This constituted a misrepresentation of her right to dispute the debt in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, 1692e(10), and California Civil Code § 1788.17.
This seems fair, right? I mean, the letter said she had to dispute in writing within 30 days. And using the least-sophisticated consumer standard of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, all we need to know is whether the dumbest person on earth would make that inference.
I think I’m smarter than the dumbest person on earth, and I still think this letter was problematic.
Not so fast, said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court said that debt collectors may not expressly require that disputes be in writing, but that there was no bar on implicitly requiring that disputes be in writing.
So now we’re not dealing with the least sophisticated consumer. We’re left with a consumer who’s got a firm grasp of English grammar, and who is thinking clearly enough to see beyond the stress associated with being the target of a collection letter. Anyone who’s ever received a collection letter or represented such a person can tell you without hesitation that this is setting the bar far too high for reality.
It comes down to a collection agency playing with language to their own benefit, and hoping that the consumer will get tripped up by the finer distinctions in the letter. The California court system, home to some of the best consumer protection laws in the nation, has failed not only this woman but every other consumer who stands in her shadow.
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