Q&A: How to get a debt collector to stop calling about a bogus bill

Dear Liz: I’m getting daily robocalls from a debt collection agency, even though a check of our current credit reports shows that we owe no one anything. (My husband and I both have stellar credit.) Google tells me that this collection agency is known for shadiness and that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has fined it for illegal debt collection practices and repeated violations of consumer reporting rules. I want to make these annoying daily calls stop (I never answer) but I worry that engaging with this company at all, for instance with a letter telling them to go away, will just cause more problems. What’s the best way to handle this kind of situation?

Answer: Debt experts sometimes advise against contacting collection agencies if you owe money, can’t afford to pay it back and are worried about being sued. The concern is that any response from you will trigger increased efforts to collect the money.

Since you don’t owe anything, though, there’s nothing to stop you from trying to end these annoying calls.

The CFPB recommends sending a letter to the collection agency demanding to know more about the alleged debt, including why the collector thinks you owe it, how old the debt is, how much is owed and details establishing the collector’s right to collect. The CFPB has a sample letter on its site you can use. Ideally, this letter would be sent within 30 days of the first phone call to preserve your rights under federal law, but there’s nothing stopping you from sending it at any point.

Once you have information about the supposed debt — or if the calls continue and the agency hasn’t responded — you can send a second letter telling the agency you don’t owe the money and to stop contacting you.

Q&A: The payments aren’t late, but the debt collectors are calling. What does it mean?

Dear Liz: In the last few months, I have received collection calls and emails for payment, sometimes before I even got the invoice and in every case before payment was due. For example, on Sept. 25 I was emailed for the second time for payment on an invoice with an Oct. 17 due date. Some but not all of these communications relate to medical bills. Is this legal?

Answer: Probably. Most companies wait until a bill is seriously overdue before turning it over to collections. Some hire collection agencies much sooner, however, and a few — including some medical providers — turn over their whole accounts receivable process. That means the collectors are responsible for regular billing, not just debt collection.

It’s unpleasant to hear from collectors, especially on an account that isn’t overdue, but you’re not likely to face credit score damage as long as the bill gets paid on time. Even if it’s past due, there is now a 180-day waiting period before unpaid medical debts can show up on people’s credit reports. (The clock starts on the bill’s first due date.)

Collectors may justify their “outreach” calls and emails by saying many people are confused by medical billing and put off paying because they think insurance will take care of the bill. That doesn’t make such contacts less annoying for those who pay on time.

Consider letting the medical providers and other companies know that you don’t approve of these tactics. Some may care enough about customer service to change their billing approach, or require the collection company to stop the premature contacts.