A resource from The Roper Law Firm and the National Association of Consumer Advocates
When a Collector Calls Seeking Payment on Old, Expired Debt
Every debt has a time limit. Once a debt is past that limit, it's known as a time-barred debt and is too old for a debt collector to sue over. This is because the older a debt is, the less likely it is there are reliable records for who owes the debt, how much is owed, and whether the debt is even owed at all.

In addition,“(m)ost time-barred debt has been bought and re-sold many, many times,” said Victor Wandres, a consumer attorney in Tulsa, Okla. “Through these sales, additional collection fees are sometimes mysteriously added in along the path of the debt ownership, causing the consumer’s debt to become unrecognizable in amount to the consumer.”

However, debt collectors are still able to contact consumers and try to collect time-barred debts even if they aren't allowed to sue. And some old debts may also be parked on a consumer's credit report. Time-barred debts have complicated rules around them that are likely to confuse consumers. Aggressive collectors habitually take advantage of that confusion and pressure consumers into making payments that could restart the time limit.

Here's what consumer attorneys say about how to handle collection of old debt:

Determine whether the debt is time barred. Each state has a statute of limitations period that states when a debt has legally expired. In Illinois, for example, lenders cannot attempt to collect debts that are more than four years past due.

Be careful with the collections letter. The collector may send letters seeking payment on a debt. The letter may include a disclosure stating that the debt is time-barred. If not, there may be other clues in the letter about the age of the debt. But these collection letters may also contain false and misleading information. There are legal protections for consumers against this type of debt collector misconduct.

Check personal records. Don’t rely on the collector to give accurate information about a debt, including the age of a debt. While the collections letter is a good place to start looking for evidence that a debt is expired, consumers should consult their own records when possible to determine when a debt may have been incurred and when the last payment was made.

Know your rights before making a payment. In some states, even a small payment or agreement to make a payment can restart the time limit on a debt, which would allow a collector to sue on it again. 

I tell my clients who are contacted about time-barred debt to throw out the communication and reassure them that they cannot be sued, and remind them that the exempt income they receive is to pay for basic necessities, like food and clothing, not debt collectors.” – Carolyn E. Coffey, a consumer attorney in New York, N.Y.

Send a letter to stop communications. Consumers do not have a legal obligation to pay time-barred debts.

I advise my clients to send a refusal to pay letter (as allowed under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) to stop future communications.” – Angie Robertson, a consumer attorney in Palos Hills, Ill.

If a consumer knows a debt is time-barred, they can send a certified letter informing a debt collector that they do not intend to pay and asking the collector to stop all communications about the debt. Stopping communications can help make sure consumers do not accidentally restart the time limit by making a payment.

• Seek legal assistance. Consumers can turn to consumer attorneys in their states for help enforcing their rights against debt collector misconduct. For example, aggressive collectors may continue contacting consumers illegally about old debt even after consumers have asked them to stop. An attorney can also help a consumer figure out whether a debt is time-barred, what the consumer’s rights are, and how to respond.
The Roper Law Firm thanks The National Association of Consumer Advocates (Consumers Ascending),consumer attorneys Carolyn E. Coffey, Angie Robertson, and Victor Wandres  for their help with assembling these tips and resources.
The Roper Law Firm
233 12th St. Suite 602 Columbus, GA 31901
Phone: (706) 596-5353| Fax: FAX


National Association of Consumer Advocates
1215 17th Street NW, 5th Floor, Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202.452.1989 | Fax: 202.452.0099