How to deal with medical debt collectors

SAN ANTONIO – Lauren MacNeill got a curious bill from a collection agency that said she owed $71 to an urgent care center.

“I believe they just made a mistake,” she said. “I had never been to that urgent care.”

If you’ve ever been contacted by a collection agency over medical debt, you’re not alone. More than 40 million people have unpaid medical bills sent to collections. But get this, half of those bills have at least one error.

“Lauren’s case is a textbook example of why you should almost always push pause when contacted by a debt collector for a medical bill,” said Consumer Reports’ investigator Lisa Gill.

If you’re contacted by a debt collector for a medical bill you believe to be wrong, never pay it right away. Instead, Consumer Reports suggests some steps to take.

First, gather as much information as you can, including the name of the collection agency, the person you’re speaking with, their phone number, postal address, email address, and as much information about the bill as possible.

“There are a lot of scams out there, so doing this can deter any phony debt collector,” Gill said.

Next, ask the debt collector to send verification of the debt. You can expect to receive the information in the mail within about five days of your request.

If the verification letter shows an error, file a dispute in writing by either email or certified letter within 30 days or else the collection agency will assume the debt is valid.

MacNeill did send a certified letter documenting the alleged errors and stating that she had no obligation to pay. The result?

“She still has not heard back, so she’s not obligated to pay any of the debt,” Gill said.

Something else to consider is that there might be a statute of limitations on how long a debt can be collected. In Texas it’s four years. Consumer Reports says do not pay any part of it until you’re sure you still owe the money.

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