Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Q&A: Collection Agency Sent Bills to Wrong Address

Hi Lee,

My name is Melissa and I came across your page form a google search. I am hoping you might be able to provide some guidance. 

In April, I received an email notifying me that there was a change to my credit report. There was a debt from 2010 (an ambulance ride to the ER) that was added. After some digging, turns out the account was sold in July 2010 to the collections agency. The agency is telling me they never received it until March 2011. Initial bills were sent to an address I haven't lived at in years, also had two other addresses on file, places I never lived, nor know anyone that lived or lives there. I have since began the dispute process. 

I am getting statements printed out from my bank from that time to see if there were any payments made to make sure this is in fact an unpaid debt. 

My question: Am I responsible after all this time? This is clearly an error on their part. At the time, I asked the hospital representative if all bills were set up on a payment plan and she verified that they were and I made monthly payments. If this was left off, why did it take 4 years for it to come to my attention? I live in NJ, however I am in the process of moving to NYC. The bill is for something that happened in Florida.

Any insight, recommendations or information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!



The statute of limitations (which is the amount of time a creditor or debt collector can sue you for a debt) differs by state. In Florida, the statute of limitations is four years. In New Jersey and New York, its six years.

If you lived in Florida until July of 2014, the statute of limitations would expire and you would be free to move to another state without fear of getting sued--even if the new state's statute of limitations is much longer than Florida's.

The problem that arises here is that, if you move before the statute of limitations expires, the SOL is "tolled" in your original state of residence. That means that, as soon as the collection agency discovers that you are no longer living there, the clock on the statute of limitations just stops ticking. When and if you move back, the statute of limitations goes back into effect and begins to time out from where it left off when it was tolled.

If the collection agency was not aware that you moved out of Florida until now (and you didn't give them the date that you moved when you spoke with them) its very possible that the statute of limitations was never tolled and simply timed out on its own. That would mean you're safe no matter which state you move to. If the addresses the collection agency was sending letters to were in Florida and you didn't disclose your new address until after July 2014, you should be safe from a lawsuit.

If, however, the collection agency is aware of the fact that you moved, they can generally opt to go by the SOL in your current state. This is advantageous to the collector, since they'd have until July of 2016 to collect the debt. Now, this part is important, so listen well:

The date that the collection agency originally received the debt is irrelevant. The only date that matters is the date you made your last payment (or, if you never made any payments, the date that your payment was originally due). It makes no difference whatsoever that the collector didn't get its hands on the account until 2011. The SOL and the credit reporting period are calculated using the dates from the original account.

 If a collection agency could use its own dates to determine the statute of limitations and the credit reporting period, no one would ever be free from collection lawsuits and bad debts would hang around on your credit report indefinitely. So don't worry about the date they bought the debt or first reported the debt. It just doesn't matter.

You mention that you are contacting your bank to determine if you made any payments on the debt. Normally making a payment on the debt restarts the statute of limitations from scratch. In Florida, however, you have to provide the creditor with a written promise to pay in order to restart the clock (Just for reference, the same is true in New York). So unless you promised to pay the debt in writing, the SOL was never interrupted and may have timed out in Florida.

The statute of limitations and the credit reporting period are two entirely different things. The credit reporting period begins 180 days after your last payment and lasts for seven years. As I stated above, the date the collection agency bought the debt or originally reported the debt doesn't matter. They have to remove it after the credit reporting period expires. The credit reporting period is the same no matter which state you live in.

Your responsibility for the debt is a gray area. Technically, if you took the ambulance ride and the debt is legitimate, you are responsible for paying the debt no matter how many errors the hospital or collection agency made when trying to collect it.

You said you spoke to a hospital administrator that assured you all bills were set up on a payment plan. If you have that in writing, that gives you grounds to fight this. You'll still be responsible for paying it, but you can probably use that statement to convince the hospital to pull the debt out of collections (and no matter what they tell you, they CAN pull the debt out of collections--even if the account was actually sold and the debt collector isn't working on a contingency) and remove it from your credit report. If all you have is someone's word, you lack proof that this was a legitimate error. It's also possible that the ambulance company bills separately from the hospital itself and that's what caused the issue.

If the ambulance company does not bill separately from the hospital and you have a statement in writing from the hospital noting that all of your debts have been added to a payment plan It could be argued that, if they hadn't made these errors, you would have paid the debt before it ever hit your credit report. In general, however, you aren't absolved from your responsibility to pay a debt simply because you didn't receive a bill.

If the statute of limitations has expired, you are no longer legally responsible for the debt and they can't force you to pay it. Keep in mind that the collection will remain on your credit report regardless of whether you pay the debt or not, and paying a collection account does not improve your credit scores. You do have the right to dispute the debt both with the collection agency itself and the credit bureaus.

If you have the funds to do so, you might consider hiring a consumer law attorney to help you. I don't know the full details of your case, but the original creditor obviously made some blatant billing errors that cost you your good credit rating. A good attorney should be able to help you straighten this out, even if it means filing a lawsuit or two to strong-arm the hospital into taking you seriously and recalling the debt.

One last thing, while you're disputing the collection you should also consider disputing those addresses on your credit report for places you never lived. You don't want another creditor to bill you at one of those addresses only to have this nightmare scenario repeat itself.

Best of Luck

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