WASHINGTON — There are times when you can be right but still wrong.
During one of my recent online chats, a reader wanted to know if a sibling was doing the right thing about his debt.
"My brother has been sharing information with me about debt collectors," the person wrote. "When you have an original debt and it is written off by the company or sold to a debt collector, how do you feel about requesting that the company show you the burden of proof that they now actually own the debt?"
The reader's brother has been challenging debt companies to verify that the debts are in his name.
"When the companies can't, he fights to have the debts removed from his three credit reports," the reader wrote.
Let me clear up some common misunderstandings about debt collection.
When you stop paying on a debt — credit card, medical bills, auto loan — the original creditor may hire a company to collect the money for them.
However, if this collection process fails, the creditor may eventually write off the debt as uncollectible. But to recoup some of the lost money, the creditor may then sell the rights to collect the debt to a debt buyer.
Debt buyers pay pennies on the dollar for old debt. Let's say a borrower owes a credit card company $2,000. A debt buyer might purchase the right to collect it for $80 — or 4 cents on the dollar. This company then becomes the owner of the debt, which may include the original defaulted amount, interest and penalties.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provides certain rights for debtors. For example, debt collectors can't lie. They can't say they'll take you to court and garnish your wages unless they are allowed by law to take the action and intend to do so.
As for the reader's brother, he does have the right to ask for proof of what he might owe. Besides, there are a lot of debt-collection scams, so it's smart to be on guard.
By law, the debt-collection firm has to tell you how much you owe and the name of the creditor within five days of the initial contact. If you send a letter disputing the debt or asking for verification, the company has to stop contacting you. You have to send the letter within 30 days after you receive the validation notice. However, the company can start the collection process again if it sends written verification.
Consumer advocates have been fighting to get court judges to demand greater proof from debt buyers before allowing them to sue consumers to recover the alleged obligations. The debt buyer may only have the person's name, last known address, Social Security number and debt amount.
Often there are no key files, such as billing statements or a contract from the original creditor with a consumer's signature. It's highly probable, if your debt has been sold and resold, that the last man standing doesn't have adequate documentation that the debt is actually yours.
Human Rights Watch issued an 80-page report two years ago arguing that debt-buyer lawsuits can be riddled with errors. In "Rubber Stamp Justice: U.S. Courts, Debt Buying Corporations, and the Poor," the advocacy group examined the way courts handle debt-buyer lawsuits.
"Debt buyers have sued the wrong people, sued debtors for the wrong amounts, or sued to collect debts that had already been paid," the report said.
Here's what I tell people to do when contacted by a debt-collection agency or debt buyer.
• Ask for verification — always.
• Do not promise to pay anything or agree to settle the debt until you get that proof.
• Check to see if the statute of limitations has expired. Go to Bankrate.com and search for "Statute of limitations on debts by state." If you agree to make a payment, you could be restarting the clock to collect.
But just because a company can't sue you doesn't mean you don't still owe the money.
• If the debt is legit, offer to settle. If you can make a lump-sum cash offer, you'll likely be able to get a pretty good settlement. Ask for the agreement in writing and keep a copy of the paid-off notice forever. (Remember: Old debt records are often sold and resold.)
There's nothing morally wrong with trying to settle for far less than you actually owe, especially knowing a debt buyer paid pennies on the dollar.
Debt collectors should treat you decently. But don't get cocky about your right to duck your debt because the law is on your side. If you borrowed the money, you're the one who broke your word, even if it was for a good reason.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.