When a debt collection agency contacts you about a past-due balance, the debt may not actually be yours.
Federal law gives you 30 days to request the collection agency to validate your debt. This is legal speak for proving you really do owe the money.
You can use this sample letter to make the debt collector prove the debt is actually yours:
[original creditor, or name of collection agency if the account was sold]
RE: [account ex: Citibank Mastercard] account # [full account number]
To Whom It May Concern:
I am formally requesting that you validate all notations you have submitted to the three major credit reporting agencies by [name of the collection agency or original creditor] for me, [your name], for account number [XXXXXXXXX].
Due to possible inaccuracies in these credit reports, I lawfully request the debt validation be in the form of a notarized statement by a person with original knowledge of the debt as it was constituted and who can testify that the debt was incurred legally.
Please know that you have 30 days from the tracked and confirmed delivery of this notice to either answer these demands or to remove the associated negative trade line notations from the credit reporting agency reports.
[Address City, STATE ZIP]
What is a Debt Validation Letter?
Credit reporting errors could ruin your credit score. Inaccuracies could make getting a mortgage or a new credit card with competitive interest rates impossible.
And an agency’s collection efforts will disrupt your life with unwanted phone calls and mail.
Because creditors, credit bureaus, and collections agencies can make mistakes, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) gives you the right to check for credit reporting errors.
A debt validation letter is one way to check for mistakes and demand they be removed from your credit history.
Debt Validation Letters Go Both Ways
A debt collector should send you a validation notice about your debt within 5 days of acquiring your account from your original creditor or from another collection agency.
In fact, this debt validation notice may be your first correspondence from the agency.
But this validation letter from the debt collector may not include documentation from the original creditor proving you owe the debt.
By sending your debt validation letter within 30 days, you’re requesting this additional documentation, and the agency must stop collection activity while it works to validate your debt.
30-Day Time Frame Is Essential
If you don’t respond with your own letter within 30 days requesting further validation or disputing the debt, you’re effectively admitting that you owe the alleged debt.
When this happens, collection efforts will likely continue until you resolve the account by either paying the amount due, settling for a smaller amount, or taking no action and accepting the consequences of bad credit.
A debt collector could also take legal action against you in civil court, unless the statute of limitations has expired on the debt. State laws create different statutes of limitations to set time limits on debt collection activity.
Where Do I Send a Debt Validation Letter?
Most debt collectors have online portals, web forms, and email addresses to help you communicate and send payments online.
I seldom recommend using these convenient tools. Instead, you must write actual physical letters and mail them to the address of the debt collection agency.
You should also send your letter via certified mail so you’ll get a return receipt — proof that the agency received your letter.
You could send a copy of your validation letter to the original creditor, but this isn’t necessary if the original creditor has already transferred the debt to the collection agency.
What Account Number Should I Include?
When you’re working with a collection account, you should include two account numbers in your written validation request:
- The original account number such as your credit card number or personal loan ID.
- The new account number assigned by the collection agency. You should be able to find this number in letters you’ve already received from the debt collector.
What Happens After I Send My Debt Verification Letter?
Within 30 days of sending your debt validation letter, you should get a validation notice from the collection agency.
The notice from the debt collector should include the following information:
- The debt amount.
- The name of the creditor.
- The age of the debt.
- The date of your last payment.
If the Debt Can’t Be Verified…
If the agency cannot document you owe the debt, you can ask the agency to stop collection efforts and restore your credit history.
Unfortunately, this seldom creates a quick fix for your credit problems. You’ll need to follow up each month with Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — assuming all three major credit bureaus include the inaccurate data.
If the Debt Collector Does Verify…
Successful verification of the debt means you legally owe the money. To get the negative item removed from your credit report you’ll need to either:
- pay the amount due.
- negotiate a settlement.
You can usually negotiate to pay an amount that’s less than the original amount due. This works because collection agencies often buy debt for a fraction of its original amount. Even if you paid only half the amount due, the collection agency could still make a profit.
Also, if a big chunk of your credit card debt came from late fees or interest rate hikes, you could ask the debt collector to waive this part of the debt as part of your negotiations.
If you take this route, conduct all your negotiations in writing and don’t pay anything until you have a written agreement saying your payment will satisfy 100 percent of the debt and end collection activity.
Writing actual letters — instead of communicating online — will help you make your case to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau if the debt collector violates your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Can’t I Wait for the Statute of Limitations to Expire?
This is a common misconception. State laws do set statutes of limitations on debt so some consumers think they can simply “wait out” debt until it can no longer affect them.
A statute of limitations on debt limits a debt collector’s ability to sue you in civil court for collection of debt. If your debt’s statute of limitations has expired, you’re safe from legal action. If you did get sued, you could have the lawsuit dismissed immediately.
But an expiring statute won’t improve your credit. You’ll still owe the money, and collection efforts can continue even though they can’t land you in court. The negative impact on your credit score will last about seven years despite the expired statute of limitations.
And keep in mind you can restart the clock on your statute of limitations by contacting a debt collector or the financial institution you owed the original debt. Making contact can include seeking validation of the debt.
Debt Validation Letters Won’t Deliver a Quick Fix
A lot of personal finance advice implies you can resolve almost any collection account by sending a debt validation letter within the 30-day period.
The idea is that by forcing the debt collector to validate your debt, you have a chance of getting off on a technicality. If you find an inaccurate account number or a discrepancy in the date of payment, couldn’t you invalidate the debt and nullify the collection notice?
In reality, this approach doesn’t yield such simple results — unless the debt really is not yours! If that’s the case, you should be able to resolve the debt without paying a dime. You’re why the Federal Trade Commission enforces the FDCPA to begin with.
If you do owe the money, you’ll probably need to negotiate a settlement to resolve the matter and remove the collection account from your credit report.
Common Errors a Debt Validation Letter Can Resolve
Debt collection tends to get messy. Transferring a debt from the original creditor to a third-party debt collector creates opportunities for mistakes and miscommunications.
Reporting to the credit bureaus isn’t always 100 percent accurate either. For example, mistakes often result from:
- Similar or Same Names: It’s possible someone with your same name or a similar name could have his or her debt reported as yours. When you think about married names and middle names, it’ll make more sense how this could happen.
- Similar Account Numbers: A digit or two can make a huge difference. If an account appears on your credit but you know your account is up to date, it’s possible someone entered an account number incorrectly, sending your account into collections.
- Missing Payment Data: Maybe you sent payment in full to the original creditor the day the account went into collections. Your payment may have been lost in the transfer.
The FTC enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to help you resolve these sorts of misunderstandings. Your debt validation letter will be key to fixing these mistakes. You could even send a cease and desist letter and really get the agency’s attention.
Credit Repair Companies Can Help, Too
Debt validation letters, cease-and-desist letters, constant credit monitoring — if all this seems like too much for you, you should consider hiring professional help.
Credit repair companies exist to help you fix credit reporting errors. You’ll have to pay a monthly fee for at least three or four months. There’s also a one-time set-up fee, but you can get a free consultation.
For some consumers, spending $300 or $400 on credit repair is money well spent because it saves so much time and gets the job done more efficiently.
If you’re the type of person who would rather have a professional handle it and just be done with the whole thing, I suggest you check out Credit Saint.
They’ll take care of you.