Is That Debt Legitimate?

July 29th, 2011, by

Q: My 83-year-old mother is being hounded by a debt collector. Other than this incident, she has had perfect credit her entire life. After going to the local hospital ER, she received the customary barrage of bills, which she, Medicare and her supplemental insurer paid within 6-7 months of her visit.

About two years after the date of service, she began receiving past due notices from a debt collection agency concerning a substantial bill about which she had previously never been contacted. She called the hospital, her insurer and Medicare, and all advised her not to pay it.

Now, three years after her ER visit, she is receiving letters from yet another collection agency. She is concerned about her credit rating, but this charge does not appear on either of the three credit agency reports.

What should she do?

Pampa, Texas

A: Don’t let your mother be pushed around by a debt collector for a debt that she doesn’t even think is hers.

The most important thing right now is to figure out if the debt is legitimate. It’s possible that the hospital transmitted incorrect information about your mother’s bill and then sold that bad information to a debt collector.

According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, every collector must send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much money you owe. The debt collector has five days after contacting you to send the written notice. The notice should include the name of the creditor and what you should do if you dispute the debt. If you don’t owe the debt, you must send a letter to the collector within 30 days of the date you receive the written notification.

So, help your mother compose a letter and send it to the debt collector. If she doesn’t owe any of the money, she should ask that collector to stop contacting her. Tell the debt collector, again, in writing, not to contact your mother again until she receives proof the debt is hers.

My bet is they don’t have verification of the debt. If they continue to bother her without proof, contact her state attorney general’s office. [Go to the site of the National Association of Attorneys General to find information specific to her state.]

To learn more about debt collection and other credit-related issues, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s site and MyMoney.gov, the U.S. government’s portal to financial education.

Last modified: July 29, 2011 at 11:47 am