The call came out of the blue. It was a debt collector telling Jackie that she owed $421 for ambulance service from three years ago. (This is a true story, but the individual’s name has been changed.) Yes, she said, it was possible that she had taken an ambulance at that time, but she had Medicare, plus supplemental insurance. And if there had been a copay she was responsible for, she insisted she would have paid it when she received the bill.
But the debt collector brushed over her concerns and told her she would get a one-time discount on the balance if she paid that day. So she gave him her credit card number.
Later that day, she talked to her son and told him what had happened. He thought it sounded fishy and encouraged her to investigate. She called her insurance company the next day, and they told her that her copay for ambulance transportation was $250 at most. They were also surprised she was hearing about the bill at such a late date.
Jackie made a common mistake that many consumers make when caught off guard by a collection agency. They pay the bill, even if they aren’t sure they owe it, often out of fear of the consequences if they don’t. Since we published our ebook Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights (download it free here), we’ve heard from hundreds of consumers who have discovered they paid debt collection accounts they didn’t owe.
Verify before you pay
What Jackie should have done instead was ask the debt collector to send her information about the debt by mail. It’s her right under federal law to receive written notification of the debt.
This would have given her time to investigate whether she actually owed the debt, without feeling pressured to pay immediately. In its notification, the collector would have had to provide the name of the original creditor (the ambulance company, in this case). Jackie could then have contacted them to try to find out whether she actually received the ambulance service and whether her insurance company had been billed.
Asking for written notification would also have allow her to do a little research to figure out if the debt was too old (outside the statute of limitations). Debts that are outside the statute of limitations are called “time barred” debts. If a collector sues a consumer over a time-barred debt, the consumer can raise the statute of limitations as a defense against the lawsuit.
If Jackie had determined that the debt was legitimate and that she did owe it, she’d have had the opportunity to try to come up with a plan for paying it off, without feeling pressured to charge it to her credit card. While hers was a relatively small debt, consumers often don’t have the money to pay a debt collection account in full, and need time to either come up with the funds, or to propose a payment plan that will work within their budget.
Finally, asking for written notification would have stopped a scammer, if Jackie were being targeted by one. Debt collection scammers are very common (and very persistent), but they rarely correspond in writing with a debtor. Their tactic is to pressure consumers over the phone to pay debts they don’t even owe. Therefore, if Jackie was dealing with a scammer and told him, “I won’t pay until I get written notification of the debt as required by law,” there’s a good chance she wouldn’t hear from him again.
Fortunately, Jackie was able to dispute the charge with her credit card company, and her insurance company has offered to look into it for her to make sure she doesn’t pay more than she owes.
If you find yourself fielding a call from a debt collector, don’t be afraid to ask the debt collector to send you details in writing. Again, it’s your right, as well as a good way to protect yourself from feeling pressured to pay a debt you may not even owe.