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Getting Out of Debt

Best Ways to Fight Collections

Your best defense against unjustified or illegal collection actions is to know your rights.

With regulators swamped by complaints and lawmakers unlikely to ride to the rescue soon, your best defense against a shakedown from collectors is to know your rights under the law. Checking your credit reports may turn up mystery debts that you can clear up before a collector starts calling, but it's not foolproof. You'll have a better chance of discovering unknown debts if you check with all three credit agencies. If a collector demands money right away, don't pay it immediately. Recognize the pressure tactic for what it is and take the time to look into the claims. "The best thing to say is, 'I need some time -- please give me your number,' " says Tricia Pummill, of the San Diego District Attorney's Office.

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Of the rules set out by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, one of the most important to understand is the process for verifying and disputing a debt. The law gives you 30 days from the first dunning notice to contest a debt and demand verification, but you must do so in writing. Telling collectors on the phone that they have the wrong person doesn't carry any legal weight.

To legally continue collection on a debt, a collector must respond to your written communication with some supporting documentation. However, that isn't necessarily a copy of an original contract, signed by you, that shows you agreed to incur a debt. For example, the collector may simply send a statement from the original creditor that verifies your identity with an address or a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, once an account has been frozen, you'll probably need a lawyer. Worse, the cost of fighting the action often is more than the amount owed. However, if you can prove that the collector violated the Fair Debt Act, it must pay for reasonable legal fees. The reality, though, is that it's "awfully hard to hire a lawyer to defend a case over a $2,000 debt," says consumer lawyer Kenneth Hiller.