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Unfortunately, living in debt is a reality for many people. And whether you signed on to this debt or it came as an unwelcome surprise, when you get one of those envelopes (you know the type…), it can be good to know exactly how to respond to a debt collection letter.

I remember when I was just out of college, I took a spill on my bike and broke my leg. I needed surgery to have my leg put back together. I was so grateful to the surgeons who helped me out.

Then, the medical bills started pouring in. There was no way I could afford these bills. I was just out of school barely making ends meet.

So I ignored them. I knew I couldn’t pay. Then, the worst: I received a letter from a debt collection agency and I had no idea what to do.

The moral of the story is: Don’t be me. Instead, keep reading to find out how you should respond to debt collectors – as well as when to ignore a debt collection letter.

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How to respond to a debt collection letter

If you have received a debt collection letter, and you are sure the debt is yours, then you should contact the creditor and attempt to pay the debt in full. Alternatively, you should try to set up a payment plan, if you can.

At the same, if you are unsure if the debt is yours, if you are positive the debt is not yours or if you want to dispute the amount they’re claiming, then there are a few steps you should follow. In those cases, take a look below for how to respond to a debt collection letter.

Related: 15 Incredible Debt Snowball Worksheets to Get Out of Debt

1. Find out who you’re talking to

The first step is to figure out exactly who you are talking to. That way, you know you aren’t dealing with a scammer.

Ask for the name of the debt collector, the name of the company, the address of the company, and the phone number. If you are speaking to a real company, they will give you this information. It’s important to verify that the company is real before doing anything else.

2. Do not give any personal information

Whatever you do, do not give out any personal information. They might be calling you by mistake. Do not share your name, your phone number, your address, or anything else.

If you correct their mistake, you might assume the debt they are trying to collect. In addition, if they have your personal information, it could make it harder for you to prove the debt is not yours.

3. Refuse to discuss the debt until you get a validation notice

Be steadfast. Refuse to discuss any potential debt you may or may not have until you get something called a validation notice. 

This is a written notice that tells you how much money you owe, who the creditor is, and what you should do if you think the debt is not yours.

couple on the phone with a letter trying an 11 word phrase to stop debt collectors

4. Become a detective for yourself

Once you have the original creditor, you should reach out to that company. Figure out why they are charging you. The company might also let you know if they even have a legal right to collect the debt from you.

You may also be interested in: 9 Simple Steps to Keep Track of Bills and Payments

5. Dispute the debt in writing

If you have done this work and you feel the debt is not yours, you have the right to dispute the debt in question. Be as specific as possible about why the debt is wrong; however, avoid giving any personal information in the letter. 

And if you’re wanting to know how to write a dispute letter to a collection agency, you may wish to use a sample letter as a model for yours, like this one here.

Keep in mind that once you have received a validation notice, you have 30 days to dispute the debt.

Should you respond to debt collectors?

You should respond to debt collectors who contact you as failure to respond could lead to them suing you. If you continue to ignore them at this point, the debt collector could get a default judgment in their favor, which can lead to them being able to take steps to recover funds from you.

A default judgment is a ruling granted by a court when, say, a defendant doesn’t show up to court when they were supposed to. The judge can then rule in the plaintiff’s (in this case, the debt collector’s) favor. At that point, the debt collector can then apply for other legal ways to access your money, like garnishing your wages, seizing your property or claiming money from your bank account.

man wondering how to respond to a debt collection letter

By this stage, the debt will also have grown in value as the debt collector and the court will apply things like interest and court filing fees – all of which you’ll now be responsible for repaying. It will also likely affect your credit score.

This means that you should definitely respond to debt collectors, although you need to be careful how you respond. Remember in particular that you want to avoid giving any personal information to a debt collection agency over the phone.

You could be dealing with a scammer. Alternatively, they might be calling the wrong person by mistake. These reasons are why it’s important to always verify that the debt collection company is real, and ask for a validation notice before doing anything else.

Should I ignore a debt collection letter?

You should not ignore a debt collection letter as not responding to them in time (or at all) can lead to the collection agency filing a lawsuit against you. Not only will this result in you being responsible for additional fees, but it can allow them to take legal action to get the funds from you in other ways.

That is, as explained above, you are certainly welcome to ignore a debt collection letter, however there could be consequences of this. 

Remember that if you have received a validation notice, you have 30 days to dispute the debt in writing. Otherwise, the debt collection agency could use other means to collect the debt.

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What happens if you never answer debt collectors?

If you never answer debt collectors, there is a risk that they may sue you for the value of the outstanding debt. This can lead to a default judgment being entered against you, allowing the collection agency to obtain the funds by garnishing your wages or taking your property.

Of course, if the debt collection agency doesn’t have your personal information, then they might not be able to find you. On the other hand, if you receive a validation notice, they probably have your personal information already.

And as explained earlier, if you never answer debt collectors who have your details and they take legal action, this could make the situation even more costly for you. Dispute the debt if you are certain it is not yours, but do not ignore the letter.

You may also be interested in: 17 Reasons Why Your Debit Card Isn’t Working – and How to Fix It

Can I refuse to deal with a debt collection agency?

You can refuse to deal with a debt collection agency. If you know who the original creditor is, you might be able to pay the creditor instead.

On the other hand, if the debt collection agency owns the debt, then you might not be able to deal with the creditor anymore. That is why you should reach out to the original creditor to find out more about the debt. You need to see if the debt is actually yours, and see what your options are.

What should you not say to debt collectors?

There are several things that you should absolutely not say to debt collectors. These include:

  1. Do not give out your name, address, phone number, or any other personal information. Giving this information could make it easier for the agency to find you.
  2. Do not make an offer on any debt until you actually know it is yours.
  3. Do not say anything more than you have to. Do not discuss the circumstances of your debt, as this could cause the debt collection agency to simply seek more money from you.
  4. Do not give out your bank information, as they might call your bank and try to go around you to get the money instead.
  5. Do not try to say you spent the money already on vacation, gambling, or something else, as this could end up being used against you if the agency tries to take you to court.
  6. Do not let your emotions get out of control. If you keep your emotions in check, the debt collection agency might be willing to give you a break on the payment amount (if the debt ends up being yours).

Do not say these things to debt collectors, as you might make life harder for yourself.

You may also be interested in: I Need to Move Out But Can’t Afford It! What Should I Do?

Can you tell a debt collector to stop calling?

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), you can tell a debt collector to stop calling you. If you do this, they can legally only contact you for specific reasons. It does not, however, stop them from suing you to recover the debt and could in fact make this more likely.

For example, it’s fine to refuse to speak to a debt collector at all until you have received a validation notice. Without a validation notice, the debt collection agency cannot pursue you further. If they do not have your personal information, you might not receive this notice.

man working out how to respond to a debt collection letter

On the other hand, if you have already received a validation notice, the clock is ticking. As mentioned above, you can tell a debt collection agency to stop communicating with you at this point. If you do that, the FDCPA says they have to stop contacting you except to say that they:

  • Are ending communications with you, or
  • May sue you to recover the debt.

And remember, if you have received a validation notice and ignore them, the next time you might see the debt collection company is in court.

Instead, if you’d like to see a debt collection response letter for a validation notice that you could copy yourself, take a look at this template letter. It also includes what to say to tell a debt collector to stop calling you under the FDCPA.

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Is there an 11 word phrase to stop debt collectors?

There are many people who are looking for a magic “11 word phrase to stop debt collectors,” but there is no such phrase. Instead, you simply need to know how to respond to a debt collection company. A few final tips include:

  • Do not give out any personal information to a debt collection company, as you might simply make it easier for them to find you in the future.
  • Verify that the debt collection company is real by asking for the company name, address, and phone number. Check this information online.
  • Do not deal with the debt collection agency until you have received your validation notice.
  • Remember that once you have received this notice, you have 30 days to dispute the debt.
  • You should reach out to the original creditor to figure out the nature of the debt. This can help you figure out if you actually owe the money.

If you know your rights and keep these tips in mind, you should be able to adequately defend yourself against debt collection calls.

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Final thoughts on what do you do when you get a collection letter

If you have received a debt collection letter, it’s never going to be fun. But don’t worry, it’s definitely manageable.

In particular, if you know the debt is really yours and is accurate, it’s often best to simply send a letter to the debt collector to settle the debt. That way, you can often work out a payment plan without things escalating.

Alternatively, feel free to write a dispute letter to a collection agency if you think something about this isn’t right. They all have processes in place to deal with these, including if you’re right and there’s been a mistake made on their side.

But if a debt is yours and you’ve received a validation notice about this, meaning the clock is ticking, don’t bury your head in the sand and try to ignore it. The problem could become much worse for you (and much more expensive) so it’s best to try to deal with it head on.

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About the author

Anna is the founder of LogicalDollar and a personal finance expert, having been featured on Forbes, HuffPost, Reader’s Digest, MSN Money, Yahoo! Finance, CreditCards.com and many more. She’s committed to helping others get on the path to financial freedom using the experience gained from turning $60,000 in debt into a six-figure investment portfolio. Find out more.