Qt3 lawyers and other knowledgable fellows: help me out!

Here’s what happened.

In I don’t even know what year, 2002 or 2003 or something, I was driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the car in front of me blew out a tire. She slammed into the guardrail on the side of the road, and I slammed on the brakes, pulled into the shoulder, and managed to stop short of hitting her. I rubbed against the guardrail somewhat in the process, but didn’t cause it any damage beyond a scuffing. I called 911 on my cell phone and waited around, and told the cops what happened.

Three years later, I get a letter in the mail: the state of Pennsylvania decrees that I owe them money, and they demand payment! Naturally, I have no idea what they’re on about, so I call them up and they indicate that it is in reference to the incident described above. I explain that this was an accident that I was a witness to rather than a participant in, and I’m told to call some other person about it. I do, we leave messages for each other, and eventually I get ahold of the lady and explain it again. I am now under the impression that the situation is resolved.

It’s at least two years later now, and I just came home to a letter from some law office who has been contracted to collect on this “debt.” As this thing happened so long ago that it was practically in a past life, I no longer have any record of anything pertaining to it. I’ll call the guys tomorrow (right?) and go over it again, but the only record of this that I can think of is the police report, and if that was correct I don’t see how they’d be coming after me in the first place.

So… what should I do about this? What can I do about it?

If it’s in collection, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act comes into play. It gives you a lot of rights - you can tell them to stop contacting you except to let you know they’re taking you to court, you can dispute the debt and make them prove it, etc. At this point having the thing go to court where you can tell an actual judge what occurred might be the best thing for you. It’s clear the bureaucrats aren’t going to be able to fix this for you, and the collection attorneys aren’t going to back off on their own.

How much are they saying you owe?

EDIT: I’m confused about how this accident became a “debt.” Is there a judgment against you, as far as you know?

Almost a thousand dollars. I’m looking at that link now, thanks.

I don’t know squat about the laws regarding hitting a guard rail, but that whole scenario sounds like such bullshit. Sorry you have to put up with that kind of crap.

Nope, and that’s one of the things that I find most confusing of all. I didn’t get a ticket or a citation, there was no judgment against me, there was no involvement on my part whatsoever between the day of the accident and the letter that showed up at my house, which did refer to it as a debt, as well as an “outstanding balance” on my “account,” if I recall correctly.

Disclaimer: This isn’t legal advice. I’m not your lawyer, have never practiced civil law, and have never practiced in (and am not licensed in) Pennsylvania. If you want legal advice, talk to a qualified Pennsylvania lawyer.

There doesn’t need to be any legal determination for it to be a “debt.” If you charge something to your credit card, for example, that’s a debt, even though there’s no legal judgment yet. On the other hand, you have no legal obligation to pay a debt unless someone obtains a judgment against you (or puts a lien on your assets, or whatever). In my experience, collection agencies don’t want to hear it about how you don’t owe the debt. They will tell you that they don’t know whether you owe it or not, all they know is they were hired by the creditor to collect it, and if you dispute its legitimacy, you need to take that up with the creditor – once the creditor notifies them that it’s a mistake, they’ll close the file. So then you will contact the state to clear it up, and in all likelihood they will tell you that they’re not taking any further action on it because they already sold the account to a collection agency and have no further interest in it.

This exact thing happened to me many years ago with a mistaken charge on a credit card that I had closed long before. The collection agent told me the charge was “probably a mistake” but that I should pay them anyway or they would screw up my credit. I refused, and for years that’s how it sat. I ended up having to pay the collection agency a few years later because I was buying my first home and their info was on my credit report and I couldn’t get a loan until it was taken off.

I’m not sure how you can resolve the thing. They are not going to sue you, so you can’t just explain it all to a judge. Maybe somehow you can sue them to force it to court. I’m not sure how long the Pennsylvania state police hold onto records, but if they don’t have them I don’t see how they would prove you owed the debt in the first place. If they do have them, presumably you could use those records to exonerate yourself. All of that would probably require hiring a lawyer, though, and in all likelihood the court of proper venue is in Pennsylvania, and it sounds like you’re not there anymore.

Without a court proceeding, they presumably have no way to force you to pay the money. OTOH, as happened with me, they can put a negative entry on your credit report without any sort of court proceeding, and it stays there for years. You have the right to “dispute” that, but in my experience nobody gives a flying fuck that you dispute it, the assumption is that you’re a deadbeat. It’s really unfair.

extar, you also seem to have forgotten about that $20 you owe me from that thing a few years ago.

Can I sell extar’s $20 debt to a collection agency for, say, four or five dollars? If so, I may just have to suddenly remember the twenty bucks that most of the people in the phonebook owe me, too.

Retirement to the Caymans is just a few (million) collection letters away, woo!

At this point, forcing them to validate the debt is the next step.

I had something like this happen to me with child support. If you have a child and move around the country, your child support debt moves with you from state agency to state agency, but those organizations are generally overworked and understaffed, so paperwork gets messed up.

I had a nightmare to untangle with agencies in several states when I bought my first house, but somehow I managed to get it done. My circumstances were obviously different than yours, but it’s all to do with keep chipping away at the bureaucracy, even if it seems hopeless (and it often does). I kept calling the next agency or person indicated for me to call. When no person or agency was indicated, I did cold calls, always looking for names and numbers of someone who can help.

I found it very difficult to keep my cool, but I think that’s crucial for success. If a person isn’t going to bend (and most are unwilling), I tried to get the phone call to end with a next step that involved me doing something and coming back to them. This way you get another crack at them. Eventually someone helps you out: sometimes it is the new person who is still hopeful and unscathed and other times it is the old person who knows how to make the system cough it up. Keep trying!

Ditto. :)

One thing to note - if the collection agency has purchased the debt from the state, as opposed to simply collecting it on the state’s behalf, the FDCPA may not apply. I’m pretty sure FDCPA only applies to third-party debt collectors.

I used to have a friend who made his living by sending out bills to people for services they never requested and that he never provided. If people called, he would assure them it was an accident and to just ignore it. He would get a surprising return from people who just never wanted to bother with trying to find out what the problem was.

This friend is now in jail. Apparently what he was doing was illegal! Imagine that!

I don’t see how what the state of PA is doing to extar is all that different.

This is not nearly as helpful as it sounds. I did this in my case, and all they have to do is send you a copy of the erroneous paperwork showing that they think you owe the debt. They do not have to “validate” it in the sense one would hope: by proving that you actually owe the money because you actually incurred the debt. All they have to do is show that the original creditor has some sort of record showing that the debt is owed (for example, in my case they just sent a copy of the erroneous charge to my credit card). If you think the charge is in error, it is your responsibility to get the original creditor to reverse it. But in my case, and I assume in most cases, the creditor has no interest in checking into the matter. They already sold the debt to someone else, it’s written off their books, and they have no interest or incentive to help you straighten it out.

The thing that sucks is, were it not for credit reporting, this would be totally fine. As with most claimed legal obligations, I could just sit back and say “I don’t think I owe it, so if you want the money, you prove that I owe it in court,” and everything would be cool. I know they can’t prove it, and if they ever sued me I assume I could eventually get them (via discovery or other court processes) to cough over the records showing it’s a mistake. The burden would be on them, as it should be since they’re the ones claiming there’s this obligation I incurred. But the problem is with credit reporting, because the way that system is set up, the burden is basically on the alleged debtor to show that they don’t owe a debt, which is nearly impossible since the creditor isn’t required to produce any records and you have no way, short of suing them, of getting at the records yourself. (Technically there’s a very small burden put on them, the burden of showing that they think you owe the money, but as I said above all they have to do is put up the erroneous document – and you have no effective way of challenging it or forcing them to justify it.)

It really completely sucks. Like I said, in my case I showed my credit card statements to the collection agency (I used to keep all that stuff in paper files. I don’t bother any more because this case taught me how pointless that is). Those statements clearly said that the account was paid in full on the date that I closed it. The agency rep eventually told me that it was probably a mistake, but that I had better pay it anyway because if I didn’t they would screw up my credit. And in the end (a couple years after I told them to fuck off), I had to pay them, because put a negative entry on my credit, which I disputed using the available means, but nobody cared. If I wanted a mortgage, I had to clear it off, and the only ways to do that were 1) pay it; or 2) sue my credit card company in Delaware, costing lots of money and probably taking months or years to resolve. It’s completely fucked up.

Well, I called them basically just for the hell of it, and explained it to the guy, and he quickly said “I’ll have to request information from the state… this could take a month or more, but you’ve done all you need to do for now.” I’m suspicious, because my feeling is that the situation is basically the same as others have said, but I guess we’ll see what happens.

I hope some of Obama’s credit card reforms fix this but I doubt they will :(

extar, did you get his name?

extar, even though I have no advice to give, I’d like to say that you have my complete sympathy. Having to throw away a thousand dollars is just sick.

The next thing you do is write a letter to the collection agency confirming this conversation, especially the “you’ve done all you need to do for now” part. Bonus points if you got the name of the guy you spoke with. The more you do in writing at this point the better.

Debt collection is a shady business, and a lot of the collection agencies that work in it will call and threaten anyone, even people with the most tenuous possible connection to a debt or alleged debt. An example:

One evening several years ago I got a call from a woman who identified herself as an employee of a bank I’d never heard of. She wanted to know what I intended to do about my account, on which I had a significant overdraft. What account, I asked. Your account, she answered. What KIND of account, I asked. An account that is significantly overdrafted, she answered. You mean a credit card account, or what, I asked. Listen, she said, you have an account with Steven A-------, and it’s overdrawn, and what are you going to do about it before I turn it over to “the attorneys”? Steven WHO? I asked, baffled. Turned out to be a guy who had once lived in an apartment in my building. This woman showed me at the same address, which gave her all the license she needed to assign the debt to me. I laughed at her and asked her if she’d ever heard of an apartment building. She wasn’t the least bit fazed, just kept threatening. The next day I looked up and called the bank. Everyone there was very helpful, and they confirmed that this woman didn’t work for the bank — she worked for a collection agency they retained. The bank ordered them to leave me alone, and they did.

I have another good example, but I have to get ready for work…

Collections agencies work on volume. You are just a number and projected dollar amount to the collection firm. Typically offering between a quarter to half of the claimed amount will make them go away if you don’t want to deal with it.

Validating the claim is good idea, but as someone said, it will most likely just produce someone internal paperwork that says you owe money.

Yeah, I got it. I’ll send that letter tomorrow, I reckon.