At some point in this unblemished modern world of ours, you’re going to receive a letter claiming that you owe someone money. If it’s a real debt from a real bank or collections agency, then, yeah, unfortunately, you’re going to have to pay at least some of it somehow. But there’s also the likelihood that it’s a completely made-up claim, and/or something you want to dispute—especially given the shady nature of the debt-collection industry.
The last time this happened to me was over the Christmas holidays, when a no doubt charming organization calling themselves Enhanced Recovery Company wrote to me and told me that I owed around $250 from a DISH TV account. The claim was fabricated—I’ve never had a DISH TV account, and the people at DISH TV were nice enough to confirm that for me—but I still had to go through the stress and rigmarole of fighting the debt. So when that pesky letter pops through the mailbox, here’s how you go about making it disappear.
(Some sort of a disclaimer about the following advice: While at one point in my life I completed what was a pretty good law degree, the grand achievement has only ever managed to help me talk up a subway ticket from $25 to $100, and once booked me into a night in the cells after taking the moral high ground in a dispute with a cab driver.)
First up, when you receive a debt-collection letter, you’ll need to fight the bilious anger that’s frothing up inside of you. Yes, it sucks, and the people contacting you are likely bottom-feeding their way through the underbelly of the consumer-credit world, but you need to stay calm and composed.
Next, under no circumstances let yourself become tempted to call the company about the letter. Keep everything in writing. Why? Because the phone conversation is pretty much an interrogation—”Are you working? Do you recall the debt? How about giving over your bank details?”—and it could end up coming down to their word against yours. Instead, start building up a paper trail and keep it on your terms. Also, if you receive unknown-number calls around the time of the letter, block the number.
Most debt-collection letters will tell you that you have 30 days to dispute the validity of the debt—after which they will assume that it is a valid debt. Do not miss this deadline. Repeat: Do not miss this deadline, unless you want this thing to escalate to a whole new level of fuckery (and possibly make its way onto your credit report, being that most debt-collection letters will threaten to send the information to credit-reporting agencies if they don’t hear back within that window). So compose and mail your response within a day or so of getting the letter—even if it means a dreaded trip to the post office or trekking around trying to find a FedEx store with a working printer that will also let you access your letter via email, because you’re out of printer ink at home and just realized that a new cartridge will cost more than the actual printer.
Also, take note of the date printed on the letter—most times this will only be a couple of weeks before you received the letter and not a full month, thereby cutting down your window to respond. At this point you might even suspect there’s some tricksterism going on.
Keep your written response short, to the point, and professional. Start by acknowledging the date you received their letter. Restate the amount they are claiming and then tell them flat out that you dispute the debt. Something like this will work: “I am writing to let you know that this claim is not valid.”
Next, you’ll want to sum up why you don’t owe them the money. If it’s a completely fictional debt—and, unfortunately, this happens, particularly when companies buy debts off each other for pennies on the dollar—you’ll be best served by getting someone from said company to confirm that you’re not in the hole to them. Simply state the name of the person you spoke to and that they confirmed that you do not owe them any outstanding cash.
Sometimes, though, it can be a lot more hassle.
My first experience with a debt-collection agency happened after I slipped over on a wet floor at a public pool in Brooklyn and stubbed my toe. When I got home, I realized my left big toe had turned a grisly shade of purple-black. That, and it throbbed and hurt like someone was repeatedly jabbing it with a pointy metal tool.
So the next day, I trooped off to a hospital that took walk-ins and billed on a sliding scale (perennial lazy freelancer with no health insurance that I am), and was told they wanted to x-ray the toe. “Sure!” I said, chipper and with the belief that these health-care professionals had my best interests at heart. I asked if this was going to add to the bill and was told, “No, it’s all covered.” Phew! After a little wait, I was told the podiatry department’s x-ray machine was broken so they were going to send me over to emergency to use theirs. “Won’t this cost a lot more money?” I politely asked. I was told it wouldn’t affect the bill at all.
Yeah, I know, I was foolish.
Two weeks after being sent home, I received a bill for a whopping $1,500 for “emergency services.”
Eventually, after about six months of going back and forth with the hospital’s collections department and then a private company, they agreed that I didn’t owe the money. I like to think common sense prevailed—being that you can’t fix a broken toe anyway, so why pay $1,500 for an x-ray—but it was a long and drawn-out palaver that I’m sure a lot of people have to go through when it comes to medical claims. Even my girlfriend—who has kick-ass insurance to the point where I’m pretty sure the cat is included on it—regularly has to deal with bills that should have been covered.
End your short letter by letting the debt-collection agency know that you are aware of your legal rights. The last letter I sent used the following wording: “I am fully aware of my legal rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”
The point is to let them know that you’re not going to be bullied into giving them any money, and that you’re prepared to take the time to fight them in an organized way. Debt-collection companies don’t really want to go through the hassle and cost of actually taking you to court—they’re just looking for a quick payment. Think of it a bit like the Nigerian email scams of yore: They only need one person out of the millions they contact to take the bait for it to pay off.
With these letters, enough people will be pressured into settling the debt—or simply paying it off, as they can’t be bothered with the hassle of disputing it—to make it worth sending out a batch of spurious letters. It’s why companies will often suggest settling for only 50 percent of the debt. So a quick line asserting your legal rights lets them know that this is not going to be worth their time and effort chasing it up. You basically want them thinking, “Yeah, okay, this person is going to be a pain in the ass. Let’s move on to the next one.”
You know that bit about keeping everything in writing? Well, there’s one exception: Never sign your name on a letter to a debt-collection agency. These companies are devious, and will happily forge your signature onto other documents, like agreements to enter into a payment plan or admit the full debt. Instead, simply sign off with a polite “Yours sincerely,” then type out your name.
Most of the advice so far relates to a case where you don’t actually owe the debt, or at least want to wholesale dispute it. But if it’s a valid unsecured debt—like a department-store credit card or medical bill—you might be tempted to suck it up and offer a lump-sum settlement. As I noted, any debt-collection companies will suggest the idea of paying 50 percent of the amount owed to close the case—and some will even accept 25 percent. Why? Because they purchased the debt for often literally pennies on the dollar of the original amount, and it’s in their financial interests to take the money now rather than waste time extending the case. For them, it’s all about a quick profit.
If you do decide to offer a settlement in writing, be warned that many companies will try and talk you into paying more somehow: You might still get a speculative post-payment letter asking for the rest of the money (usually citing some fanciful loophole, or even claiming that the person you struck your deal with wasn’t authorized to make it). So make sure to specify in writing that it is for the full payment on the debt, and also include a line requesting that they remove any reference to it from your credit report. Then cross your fingers and think very positive thoughts.
Throughout the debt-response process, you’ll want to listen to renowned consumer-rights champion Jadakiss: “I learned from the OGs to save everything.” Basically, you want to take down details of every piece of correspondence you enter into. Obviously save copies of any letters you write and receive, but also photograph the envelope stamped and ready to be sent out (certified mail, of course—it’s the white-and-green label).
Preemptively, this also applies to returning any cable-TV or internet equipment once you’ve ended a contract. Photograph the remote controls inside a box, packaged safely, and with the pre-paid postage label on the outside. (This came in handy when a certain internet company—let’s call them Optimum—decided to bill me $275 for the non-return of a wifi router that I had sent back. Emailing over pictures and the delivery confirmation number soon closed the case.)
Likewise, if you do end up speaking to someone on the phone at some point during this process—and to quote the learned J. Cole, “Boy, what I tell your ass about picking up that phone when the number unknown?”—take down their name, the start and end time of the call, and ask for a reference number for the conversation. Even take a screenshot of the call details on your phone. In this case, paranoia is your friend.
With your letter now mailed out and confirmed as being delivered, you can celebrate! Actually, there’s no real victory in this process. A successful result simply means that you’ll never hear from the debt-collection company again. (You might want to double-check your credit report, but assuming you responded within 30 days, there should be no mention of the claim.) So, yeah, you’ve spent a bunch of time, effort and stress fighting to clear a debt that you likely didn’t even owe in the first place. Welcome to modern America, buddy, it’s a hell of a town.
Phillip Mlynar lives in Queens, NYC. When not writing about rappers for Red Bull, NYLON, and the Village Voice, he muses on the feline form for Catster. His Twitter claims he’s the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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