How to dispute a debt collection

You may have more options for disputing a debt than you realize

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Whether you owe it or not, receiving a debt collection notice can conjure up feelings of anxiety, worry and perhaps confusion, too. These feelings compound when you’re unsure what the next steps are.

A debt collection doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks, though. Not only do you have options when it comes to working with a collection agency, but you also have rights as a consumer under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Before you feel rushed to immediately make a payment, you need to know how to legally dispute a debt collection.

Key insights

The first step after contact is getting the company name, address and phone number of the debt collector.

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Sending your own debt verification letter or dispute letter within 30 days of the initial contact should stop the collection process temporarily.

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After sending a dispute letter, collections may stop altogether or you may receive validation you do owe the debt.

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Sending a dispute letter in writing within 30 days of receiving any debt validation is another critical step.

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How to dispute a debt

A debt collector may attempt to contact you in a variety of ways, including by phone, email, letter, text message or even through social media. Your first instinct when you receive a debt collection notice may be to quickly pay it and be done with it, or you may feel like ignoring it if you’re certain it’s a false claim. However, a better approach is gathering as much information as possible related to the debt collection.

During the initial contact from the collector, the only action you need to take is getting the name of the person you’re corresponding with, company name, address and phone number for official correspondence.

It may be a debt collection scam if the person contacting you refuses to provide information such as their name, company name, phone number or address for written correspondence. Be on the lookout.

It’s critical that you do not make any payments at this time — even a small amount essentially acknowledges the debt and can keep you on the hook for the entire amount. It’s also essential that you do not make any promises of payment or ask for a payment plan. Simply get the basic company information and move on to the next step.

What is a debt validation letter?

The debt collector has five days from initial contact to provide information about the debt in writing — also known as a debt validation letter. It’s vital to pay attention to this letter because it provides details about who the debt collector is and who you should contact.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), this letter should not only contain information regarding the amount of the debt and name and address of the creditor; it should also include:

  • Notice of the intent to collect a debt
  • Your name and address
  • Account number
  • Itemized detailing of the debt
  • How to reply if you feel the debt isn’t accurate or if you need to make the payment
  • The end date for how many days you have to reply to the debt (should be 30 days)

» MORE: How to get out of credit card debt

Gather facts with a debt verification letter

Whether you’ve received a debt validation letter from the debt collector yet or not, the next step is sending your own debt verification letter within 30 days of the initial contact. You should send this letter by certified mail to the address you received when the debt collector initially contacted you. Keep in mind you must contact the debt collector with a written notice and not a phone call, otherwise it won’t stop the collection process.

A debt verification letter is an inquiry you make to the debt collector confirming the validity of the debt and amount owed. This letter should also state that you’re requesting proof you owe the debt and that you request all contact stops. You can also ask if the debt collector is licensed to collect debts in your state and for its license number.

Send a dispute letter if you don’t recognize the debt

If the debt collector responds to the debt verification and you still don’t recognize the debt or the information is too vague, then you should send a dispute letter by certified mail saying it doesn’t belong to you.

You can dispute a debt at any time, but you should send the dispute letter within 30 days of the debt collector’s validation. Again, by not sending the letter within 30 days, the debt collector can assume it’s a valid debt and proceed with the collection attempt.

» LEARN: How does debt consolidation work?

Next steps after sending a dispute letter

Once the collector receives your letter, they’re required by law to stop contacting you for payment, even if it’s only temporarily. However, you may receive a notification from the collection agency confirming they will stop correspondence for the time being. It’s also possible the collection attempt will end.

“Being cautious and requiring collection agencies to play by the formalized rules at every step is a good thing,” explained Daniel Cohen, who practices consumer protection law and founded Consumer Attorneys, a firm based in New York City.

“In fact, it could also be the case that you legitimately owe the debt, but the agency attempting to collect it doesn’t have proof of the authority to do so or isn’t licensed to collect it from you in the state where you live,” Cohen said.

Being cautious and requiring collection agencies to play by the formalized rules at every step is a good thing.”
— Daniel Cohen, Consumer Attorneys

Keeping careful records of all correspondence, including copies of letters you’ve sent and any information you have in your own records, is vitally important.

If you’re concerned about the debt getting reported to your credit report before the matter gets resolved, you can send a letter to each of the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — advising them the debt is in dispute. Meanwhile, keep an eye on your credit report and ensure nothing has been reported by the collection agency. If it has, you can follow the steps with each bureau to document a mistake and ask for removal.

If you feel you’re being harassed by the collection agency at any time or an agency moves forward with a lawsuit, then it’s likely time for you to hire an attorney.

» LEARN: What happens when you stop making credit card payments?

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    Should I pay the collection agency or send payment to the original creditor?

    Even if you’ve received a debt collection notice from a collection agency, it may be possible to work with the original creditor (the business that issued the original loan). You can contact the original creditor’s customer service department, explain your appeal and request a payment plan. However, the original creditor may no longer offer the option of taking direct payment if the debt has already been sold to a collection agency.

    How do I fight a false debt collection?

    First, it’s crucial to get the name and address of the collection agency so you can send a debt verification request within 30 days of an initial contact from the agency. The verification request should ask for all details surrounding the debt, including amount owed, original creditor, proof it’s your debt and to cease contacting you.

    If you still don’t recognize the debt, you can send a dispute letter within 30 days. If you do not send a dispute letter within 30 days, the collection agency can assume it’s a valid debt.

    Can you dispute a debt if it was sold to a collection agency?

    Yes, you can dispute a debt even if it was sold to a collection agency. The first major step is requesting verification of the debt in writing from the collection agency within 30 days of them contacting you. If requested through a debt verification letter and if received within the 30 days, the debt collection agency must provide proof the debt belongs to you.

    Bottom line

    Dealing with the collections process can seem a bit daunting, but you do have rights for disputing a debt collection. It’s not unheard of for debt collectors to ask for payments, even if it’s not your debt.

    The good news is that you can potentially derail the debt collection process by requesting verification and putting a stop to an erroneous collection. If you feel like you’re getting harassed by the debt collector, you can file a complaint with the CFCB, or hire an attorney.

    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

    1. Federal Trade Commission, “Debt Collection FAQs.” Accessed May 6, 2024.
    2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “What information does a debt collector have to give me about a debt they’re trying to collect from me?” Accessed May 3, 2024.
    3. Texas Attorney General Office, “Your Debt Collection Rights.” Accessed May 3, 2024.
    4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “What can I do if a debt collector contacts me about a debt I already paid or don't think I owe?” Accessed May 3, 2024.
    5. Equifax, “How to Bypass Debt Collectors and Work with Your Original Creditor.” Accessed May 6, 2024.
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