If you’ve received a notice from a debt collector, but have reason to believe you don’t actually owe that debt (or owe a lot less than they say you owe), federal law gives you a brief opportunity to force the collector to demonstrate that you do indeed owe this debt, and to stop trying to collect on it until they have verified you are the one responsible, and that the money is still owed.
There are several reasons why you might dispute a debt collection notice: You believe the collector has the wrong person; the amount being sought is much higher than you think is really owed; the debt is so old that you are no longer legally obliged to pay it (Note: The statute of limitations on debt varies by state).
The “Disputed Debts” clause of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you a 30-day window within which to dispute the debt in writing, and request that the collector provide more detailed information about the debt and documentation showing that it has verified that you are in fact the person that owes this money. Until the collector provides this written verification, it may not continue to collect on the debt or seek judgment in court.
Below is a sample, fill-in-the-blank letter that you can use as a guide for disputing a debt with a collector. The Federal Trade Commission advises that you be as specific as possible in the letter about the reason why you think you do not owe this debt (or owe all of it, if you’re disputing the amount), but you should “give as little personal information as possible” in the letter.
To confirm that the letter has been received, we recommend sending it by certified mail with “return receipt requested,” so you have it for your records later, if needed.
You don’t have to dispute a debt to get debt collectors to stop calling you. Even if you know you owe debt, you can stop the collection calls and notices by writing the collectors and asking them to cease contact. That doesn’t get rid of the debt; it just means you will no longer hear about it, with the exception of notices involving legal actions over the debt.
You can find more about your rights under the law at the Debt Collection section on the Federal Trade Commission website.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.