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Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from an organization called National Credit Systems. In the letter, they say that I owe them $230 to the apartment manager that I rented from 3 years ago. I have 30 days to contact them.

I googled this company and it seems like they are not an official government agency. I don't know if I should ignore them, contact them, or go directly to the apartment manager and ask what's going on.

If I did owe the apartment manager money, why did she take three years to contact me? I think that's a bit odd, isn't it? I moved out in 2015 and they are only just contacting me now?

Here's a screenshot of the bulk of the letter. In it, they never explain what exactly I owe them for. What do you think I should do?

Thanks!

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    Give them a call and get the details and ask for paperwork in real, no emails or anything. Fraudsters are generally hesitant on sending hard copies of documents. And ask them to mention reasons of coming so late, and how they arrived at the amount etc on paper. And offer no payment or details unless and until you have received everything on paper and you are satisfied with it. If possible get in touch with the apartment manager to check their side of the story too. – DumbCoder Apr 16 '18 at 7:59
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    I wonder if they have rights to use the stock images on their admin login page... – MonkeyZeus Apr 16 '18 at 14:21
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    "I Googled this company and it seems like they are not an official government agency." That's entirely normal. Collections agencies are private companies. – ceejayoz Apr 16 '18 at 14:33
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    Aside from the stolen images - this doesn't look like a scam at all. – JonH Apr 16 '18 at 14:47
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    NCS is a legitimate, up-and-up collections agency. I've dealt with them in the past (a friend gave me a POA to be able to represent her in the matter), and they had genuine paperwork demonstrating the source of the debt in question, which turned out on investigation to be legit. – Charles Duffy Apr 16 '18 at 15:50
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National Credit Systems is a genuine and reputable collections agency. It's a member of American Collectors Association and National Apartment Association. The web site and the phone numbers in the letter belong to National Credit Systems.

Even without knowing that, the letter doesn't have any obvious signs of a scam:

  • They offer you instructions for disputing the debt – exactly the opposite of what a scammer would want you to do
  • They give you contact information and ask you to contact them – debt collection scammers generally just want you to send the money and not contact them in any other way
  • They give 30 days to contact them – scammers want you to act immediately
  • The tone of the letter is firm but friendly – scammers tend to be aggressive and threatening

Of course, even if it's not a scam doesn't mean that you necessarily owe the money. It could be a clerical error or some other misunderstanding. The best way to proceed is to call the numbers in the letter and ask for more details, or just call the apartment manager and ask what the deal is.

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    If you believe it to be an invalid debt (clerical error, mistake, misunderstanding, etc.), do not make a payment or in any way indicate it's a legit debt. Dispute the debt. Here's the FTC's guidelines on what to do: consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/12/dont-recognize-debt-heres-what-do – ceejayoz Apr 16 '18 at 14:35
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    In addition to what @ceejayoz added, you should take some time to review the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act It lists a lot of things that debt collectors are not allowed to do but often do anyway (like hassle your family.) Mention in writing or on the phone that you are familiar with the law. It will often prevent a lot of bad behavior. – JimmyJames Apr 16 '18 at 16:16
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    Another highlight of the law: Once you are 'in judgement' for a disputed debt, the collector is not allowed to contact you. – JimmyJames Apr 16 '18 at 16:17
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    To me the biggest "giveaway" that this isn't fraudulent is the "Required Statutory Notice". I just wouldn't expect to read that in fraudulent mail... – Mehrdad Apr 16 '18 at 23:31
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I had an experience with debt collectors attempting to collect on money that I did not owe. There are some things I learned while resolving this that I think are helpful to anyone in collection especially when the debt is disputed.

The reason I was put into collections was because I had failed to file state taxes in a year when I moved to a new state and got married. My bad because I was owed a few hundred bucks by the state. However, when they looked at my federal return numbers, the determined I owed them around $5000 based on the assumption I was a single filer living in the state all year long.

Stay Calm

Debt collectors often try to panic people. Their goal is to convince you to pay as soon as possible. Don't get angry or threaten them (even if they threaten you.) Be very formal in your conversations.

The Debt Collector doesn't care about fairness

When the legitimate debt collector first found me, she upset my wife and told her that I was some sort of deadbeat. My wife called me at work and gave me the number. I made the mistake of calling from work. I knew it couldn't be real because I've never owed anything like that on state taxes (after withholding.) I contacted the state and tried to get some information.

While I was waiting on that, she kept calling me at work daily or more and threatening to garnish my wages or something. It was all nonsense. I explained it was a mistake and she said I should just pay her the $5K and get it back from the state later. I laughed. She wasn't joking.

The Collections Agency is not going to transfer your payments to the original party

When a debt collector comes after you, they 'own' the debt. Whoever they got it from has already been paid some fraction of the original amount. Any claim that you can get refunded from the original party is highly dubious. The debt collector has no control over that. You might be able to get it if you sue but I wouldn't count on ever seeing the money again.

You Have Rights in this matter, even if the debt is real

As I commented in another answer you should read up on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

There are false debts being sold in the US

I recently read a really interesting article about a man who was repeatedly harassed over a fabricated debt by multiple collection agencies. His was part of a much larger set of fabrications. Don't pay this debt or even admit to owing it until you have been shown proof of it's veracity. If it's not real get proof in writing in case you are contacted by other collectors later.

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    The article is appalling. The bad guys there don't get it, you get all intense and you wind up with a crusader out to destroy you. You don't need to collect from every debt to win on the numbers, so a more low-key approach to scamming can be more profitable. – Harper Apr 16 '18 at 20:31
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    @Harper Yeah it's pretty crazy but after my experience with a debt collector, I can believe it. Not that it was that bad for me but I started doing research at the time and this is not uncommon, even though a lot of this behavior is highly illegal. The collection agencies know a lot of what they buy will never get collected. The collectors get commissions on what they collect so they are incentivized to bend the rules. – JimmyJames Apr 16 '18 at 20:57
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Validate the debt independently

The first question to ask is "Why wasn't I noticed of this back in the time of relevance? That's a very good question. Now if you just made yourself hard to reach, by moving around all the time and not noticing your landlord of your new address, then meh, maybe. You might even outreach the original landlord and ask him directly.

Be very careful dealing with this collection agency.

I do not agree with advice to do as the letter instructs. The letter is instructing you to give up all your rights. Demanding they prove the validity of the debt is fine; however the collection agency wants to engage you in conversation, in which they hope to tape-record you saying something stupid or misinterpretable, so they can claim the debt is indeed valid. In spoken conversation it is almost impossible to keep a counterparty from misinterpreting you if they really want to.

Paying it now will make your credit worse

It's beyond the scope of this answer, but it will hurt your credit badly to acknowledge the debt. Paying on the debt counts as acknowledging it. This restarts the clock on the statute of limitations, reopening the courtroom door and letting them mar your credit report for 7 years from now.

Errors reveal scams, but correctness doesn't mean legit

It isn't incompetently written nor in broken English. That doesn't make it not a scam.

"Scams have obvious errors" has become such a trope, that successful scammers are getting a lot of mileage out of making theirs picture perfect. And this one is picture-perfect with all the correct language to push the limits of the consumer protection laws in the normal ways collectors do.

There really are scams out there

For instance, someone may have hacked the landlord computer, or an ex-employee absconded with a list of past tenants, and decided to "trump up" some fake multi-hundred dollar charges. The size of the debt is very correct for this scam: at $300, a large number of people pay it to make it go away and virtually no one will aggressively challenge such a debt.

You would not believe how much mileage someone can get out of a well constructed scam. Look at how many people settled with Righthaven or Prenda before the courts shut them down, and those people really were pirating. Jarek Molski demanded $5000 from over 800 restaurants and got over a million dollars before one restaurant countersued and discovered he had suffered the same injury in 12 restaurant bathrooms on the same day. (each of the restaurants really did have ADA defects; toilet paper rolls mounted too low, that kind of thing.)

The collection agency may be legit; the scammer may have sold him bogus debt.

  • "Why wasn't I noticed of this back in the time of relevance?" It is a good question. Sometimes businesses look at what they have that is not paid and instead of tracking down a bunch of people they will sell off all of it for a one-time payment. But even if that's the case, it could still be in error. – JimmyJames Apr 16 '18 at 18:20
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    "These people aren't Nigerians." ??? Being Nigerian doesn't automatically make you a scammer. Neither does not being able to write in clear English. – user17915 Apr 17 '18 at 0:50
  • @user17915 edited. When it's a corporate (not personal) communication that is sent to many people, it's pretty much gold-standard in the US that the English be proper and professional. – Harper Apr 17 '18 at 1:14
  • Scammers usually put errors in on purpose. This sorts out the people that are too clever to fall for the ruse and saves them time in the end. If only the people gullible enough to swallow the hook, is attracted by the bait, the fishing is much easier. – Stian Yttervik Apr 18 '18 at 12:21
  • @StianYttervik often true, and for that same reason scammers often claim to be from Nigeria when they're actually not. But people have taken this "bad English=scam" signal too seriously -- just like 40 years prior to 9/11, giving skyjackers cockpit access had always worked out well - habit created exploitable vulnerability. Now, people's false equation of "good english=legit" has created a vulnerability, which scammers are exploiting. – Harper Apr 18 '18 at 17:02
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As the attached letter references, you are being advised to contact the company in writing within 30 days of receiving the letter. It's clearly written that to neglect to do so validates the debt and the following collection actions.

It's wise to do exactly as directed, write a letter, send it return receipt requested and await the clarification of the alleged debt.

Phone calls and emails are fine, but do not qualify for the conditions noted in the letter.

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    I'm pretty sure it's not the law that failure to respond to the letter 'validates' it. Even if they could do something like that they would need proof of receipt of the letter via certified mail or even witnessed serving of papers. This kind of panic is not warranted. The OP should follow up ASAP, though. The sooner this is resolved, the better. – JimmyJames Apr 16 '18 at 16:22
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    @JimmyJames correct, failure to respond does not validate a debt. That is not a thing, but if it were a thing, they'd have to serve you. Heck, failure to show up in court isn't even a forfeit, the judge will decide on available evidence, so for instance he'll still toss it if it's time-barred. I had someone fail to notice me of his trip to the appeals court. Wouldn't have mattered, the appeal was inept. – Harper Apr 16 '18 at 17:40
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    Also, it's generally unwise to do exactly as collectors instruct. They are on the ragged edge of the line between "exploiters" and "outright fraudsters". Their job is to trick you into paying regardless of the facts or law, and a great deal of law has had to be written to protect you from them. They aim, at the least, to have you acknowledge the debt, so they can restart the statute of limitations. – Harper Apr 16 '18 at 17:55
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    This is a dangerous answer, as in many jurisdictions it is more like the opposite; responding to such a solicitation in a way that "acknowledges" the debt in any way is what actually validates it, which is probably why the collections agency is being pushy on this point... – jkf Apr 16 '18 at 20:46
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Insist on getting a copy of the receipt for your debt.

When bought in bulk, debts are just mountains of paper. Requiring that they show your individual receipt is lots of work for them (assuming they genuinely think they have it -- somewhere)

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Ask them to provide you with the documentation for the debt: why do they claim you owe the debt, and what proof do they have. You should look into the statute of limitations and see whether it has lapsed.

If they can show you owe the debt, ask them what terms they are proposing. Some pieces of information to get:

Have they reported the debt to credit agencies
If so, are they willing to withdraw the report if you pay
Are they charging interest/penalties

They likely bought the debt at a high discount and would be willing to take a fraction of what they're claiming, but you need to make sure that if they accept a partial payment that they are accepting it as fully discharging the debt, and won't report it to credit agencies as a default. Be careful not to say anything that can be construed as acknowledging the debt during the negotiations.

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