Verify the age
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One of the biggest factors in fighting old debt? Determining just how old it really is.
"If it's not falling off, then the credit reporting companies have not received the right date," says Maxine Sweet, recently retired vice president of public education for credit bureau Experian.
With a court action (like judgment or bankruptcy), determining the date is easy. You count it the day it was filed, says Evan Hendricks, author of "Credit Scores & Credit Reports: How the System Really Works, What You Can Do."
Delinquency is more difficult. "The regulatory language on it is very complicated," says Sweet. However, the date that you first became delinquent and after which never caught up is the date that should count, she says.
Her example: You miss a payment in January. Then you make it up and also pay in February. Then you miss March and your bill eventually goes into default. Your delinquency date would be March.
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No separate clock for sold-off debt
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One point that confuses even the experts: No matter how many times a debt is sold (and resold), the date that counts for the seven-year credit report clock is the date of delinquency with the original creditor, Sweet says.
Think of it as your debt's birthdate.
If a collection agency bought your 10-year-old retail card debt and has started putting it on your credit report with a different date, that's a no-no.
"It used to be a really big problem for us," Sweet says. "Now it's the exception rather than the rule."
Get all three of your credit reports
Your three credit reports from consumer reporting agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are not identical triplets.
The old debt in question might be listed in some credit reports but not others. To find out, get a copy of all three of your reports, Magnuson says. Federal law entitles you to request a free copy of each report once every 12 months. You can download them for free at AnnualCreditReport.com (or send away for them).
Once you find out which bureaus are listing the debt, contact them. Your credit report will include contact information and dispute instructions.
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Send letters to the bureaus
If the debt really is too old to be reported, it's time to write the credit bureau(s).
While email is allowed, this is one time you're better off with snail mail, says Hendricks.
"If you do (email), that can mean that no human being ever sees it," he says. "So I recommend people do not do it online."
When you dispute an old debt, the bureau will ask the creditor reporting it to verify the debt. If it can't, the debt has to come off your report.
Make sure to craft a case so strong the creditor will have to acknowledge that it's correct or present tangible evidence to the contrary. So include copies of anything that supports your claim, such as copies of court filings that show the correct date for a judgment or bankruptcy, or a letter from your original creditor showing when the account became delinquent.
If a collection agency is reporting an account as a different (and newer) debt, include any paperwork that shows the two accounts are really the same debt.
Send this letter certified with a return receipt requested so that you can prove when it was sent and that it was received.
Send a letter to the reporting creditor
You also want to send a similar letter to the creditor who's currently reporting the debt.
To do this, either reframe your credit bureau letter with copies of your documentation to the creditor, or simply send a copy of the same letter with copies of any documents included.
As with the credit bureau, send it certified with a return receipt requested.
The creditor has 30 days to investigate your claims and respond, says Hendricks.
Pro tip: Too many times consumers get angry and their letters tend to reflect that, says Sonya Smith-Valentine, an attorney and owner of the Valentine Legal Group. But that's damaging, she says.
Instead, keep all your conversations and letters calm, measured and businesslike, she says.
Get special attention
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If your initial letters don't do the trick, you may have to kick your approach up a notch, says Smith-Valentine. Take a few minutes to research online the company reporting the debt. "Direct your next letter to the president's attention at the company's headquarters address," she says, "because you get a different kind of response from the office of the president than you do from customer service," says Smith-Valentine.
Again, she says, send it certified and keep a copy in your files.
A good source of company information on collection companies is the searchable database of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.
Her tip: Try searching by the location rather than the name of the company.
You can also follow up with a phone call after a few weeks.
If you can't seem to get past an officious gatekeeper, call after hours and leave your message directly in the executive's voice mailbox, Sherry says.
Contact the regulators
If the collector is "in any way, shape or form a bank," it has a federal regulator, says Smith-Valentine. "They actually take individual complaints and contact the companies about the complaints they receive."
"I always say that it should not be your first recourse," says Smith-Valentine. Only use this one if "you have contacted the company and received no resolution or response," she says, as regulators want to see that you've tried to solve it yourself first.
Again, opt for snail mail, she says. "You want to be able to send in copies of your correspondence, and copies of your return receipts, and you can't do that online."
One shortcut you could try is printing out the agency's complaint form, filling it out and sending it in clipped to your documents, she says.
States sometimes offer help, too. "Many times you will find that your state has a governmental agency that regulates debt collection in your state," says Smith-Valentine. "If you complain to them, they actually contact the company on your behalf."
Try your own state (as opposed to the creditor's state) first, says Magnuson. As a constituent, "you have a little more leverage," he says.
Talk with an attorney
Consulting an attorney doesn't always mean pursuing a lawsuit. Sometimes all you need is a letter on legal stationery to make a creditor review the records.
If, despite your best efforts, the creditor or collector is keeping old debt on your report, an attorney can also advise you as to whether a lawsuit is a good option.
If you do elect to talk with an attorney, choose one who specializes in consumer rights, says Smith-Valentine. "When you're dealing with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it is very convoluted, and you need someone who's done it, who understands it and who knows where the holes are."
One source for help is the National Association of Consumer Advocates, an organization of lawyers who specialize in credit and debt law.