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If collectors call on a very old debt, know your rights and assert them

Start by making them prove the debt is yours

By Tanisha Warner

Credit Care
'Credit Care' columnist Tanisha Warner
Tanisha Warner is the communications manager for Money Management International, where she manages educational content designed to teach consumers about personal finance topics. She writes "Credit Care," a weekly reader Q&A about debt issues, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Credit Care,
Due to health problems (heart attack), I was forced to file bankruptcy. It is 12 years later and some creditors are starting to hound me for payments saying they weren't covered by the court action. My only income is Social Security Supplemental Security Income at this time. What should I do? -- Jack

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Jack,
A good rule of thumb when contacted by anyone who says you owe them for a debt is to request verification in writing that the debt is valid and owed by you. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act states that, to validate a debt, a collector or creditor must provide you with:

  • The amount of the debt.
  • The name of the creditor.
  • A statement that you have 30 days to dispute the debt in writing.
  • A statement that if the debt is disputed in writing by you that the collector must obtain verification of the debt and mail it to you.
  • A statement that you can request in writing the name and address of the original creditor.

I would recommend that you ask anyone who calls you on the phone in an attempt to collect a debt for the address to write and dispute the debt. If the collector refuses to provide you with an address, keep records of the company name and the person's name who called. For debts 12 years old, it is unlikely that the collector will be able to provide you with verification of the debt.

Nearly all debts 12 years old will be long past the statute of limitation for collecting a debt. Exceptions would be child support, federal and state income taxes and federal student loans. So unless you are being contacted regarding one of these debts that are excluded from the statute of limitations, you might also consider telling any collector who calls that the debt is past the statute of limitations to collect using the courts and you do not intend to pay it.

Lastly, if you decide you don't mind the collector having the information, you might also consider letting them know that your sole source of income is SSI, which is exempt from garnishment (except for debts owed to the federal government).

Do be sure to open all your mail. Some collectors may take the chance that you will ignore a notice to appear or provide documentation to the court when summoned. You must provide the statute of limitations as your defense should you be sued by a collector; the court will not automatically do it for you. Even though your current income is exempt from garnishment, you don't want a judgment against you on your credit report, and that could be the result if you don't defend yourself in court.

If communicating with collectors is causing you stress, you also have the option of not answering your phone unless you know who is calling. If you don't have caller ID on the phone that you use most often, you might consider investing in an answering machine where you could screen your calls.

Handle your credit with care!

See related: 11 tips for dealing with debt collection, collectors, Debt collection sample letters

Tanisha Warner is the communications manager for Money Management International, the largest nonprofit, full-service credit counseling agency in the United States. She manages educational content designed to teach consumers about personal finance topics. You can find more money management advice on Blogging for Change and MMI's Facebook page.

Credit Care answers a question about a debt or credit issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to Credit Care.

Published: April 23, 2012



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