Nearly 70 million Americans had debt in collections on their credit reports as of 2019. But while it's relatively common, having debt turned over to a collection agency also has serious consequences, including potential damage to your credit. Debt collectors can be aggressive and may attempt to collect on debts that you never owed or no longer owe. Before agreeing to pay anything or even acknowledging that the debt is yours, you should make sure you've received certain information and reviewed it. Here’s how that process works. 

Key Takeaways

  • Within five days of first contacting you, debt collectors are required to send you a debt validation letter if they haven't already provided the information verbally.
  • A debt validation letter should include the name of your creditor, how much you supposedly owe, and information on how to dispute the debt.
  • After receiving a debt validation letter, you have 30 days to dispute the debt and request written evidence of it from the debt collector.

What is a Debt Validation Letter?

When debt collectors contact you about money you may owe, they are required by law to provide you with certain information:

  • The name of the creditor you supposedly owe money to.
  • The amount you owe.
  • That you have the right to dispute the debt, but if you don’t dispute it within 30 days of being contacted, the debt collector can assume it is valid.
  • That if you dispute the debt in writing, the debt collector must provide written evidence of the debt.

If debt collectors first contact you by phone, insist that they instead contact you in writing. They are then required to send you a debt validation letter within five days, containing all of that information.

Debt Collection and Your Rights

If you believe that you don’t owe the debt described in the debt validation letter, either because it doesn’t belong to you or the statute of limitations has expired, you have 30 days to dispute it, starting from the date you received the required information from the debt collector.

If you dispute it via writing, debt collectors are not allowed to call you or contact you or try to collect payment until they have sent written verification that you owe the debt.  

When disputing a debt, make sure you date your letter and send it via Certified Mail, so you have a record of when the debt collector received it. 

If you are requesting additional information, your letter should ask for details on why the debt collector believes you’re responsible for the debt, how old the debt is, and whether the agency is licensed to collect it.

You can also request that the debt collector only communicate with you through your lawyer or specify what contact methods are permitted. 

If a debt collector continues to contact you or harasses you, file a complaint with the following agencies: 

Sample Letter to Dispute a Debt

If you’re not sure what should be included in your letter, you can use the one below as a template. In this example, the person writing the letter does not owe the money because of fraudulent activity and has already made the creditor and the credit bureaus aware of that fact. 


[Your name]

[Your return address] 

[Date]


[Debt collector’s name]

[Debt collector’s address]

Subject: [Including debt account number, if available]


Dear [Debt collector],


I was contacted by [debt collector representative’s name] via [phone or letter] on [date]. The representative said I owed [dollar amount] to [name of creditor]. However, I do not owe that debt. My information was stolen [when], and I disputed that account with [name of creditor] and the major credit bureaus. 

If you believe that I am still responsible for this debt, please send me any documentation you have that proves that I owe it. Until then, please cease all communication with me and note on your records that I dispute any responsibility for this debt. 

If you are reporting this information to a credit bureau or have already reported it, report that I am disputing this debt. 

Thank you,

[Your name]


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has other sample letters on its website that you can customize to respond to debt collectors. 

Important

If you discover debts you don't owe, or accounts you never opened, on your credit report, you can dispute them with the credit bureau. All three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—provide instructions on their websites.

Next Steps

After you have mailed your request, debt collectors should send you any documentation they have that you owe the debt. Or, they may stop all collection efforts if they don’t have enough information to prove you owe it. If they send documentation, review it carefully and compare it to your own records. 

If it turns out that you do owe the money, as the debt collector claims, you may be able to negotiate with the collector and make a partial payment or set up a payment plan. If you’re unsure what to do next, and the amount involved is large enough, a debt collection attorney could be of help.