If you haven’t read my previous posts about the zombie debt collector Afni, Inc., you really should start with this post and work your way forward through the series before reading this post. None of the posts are terribly long, but they offer a great deal of context.
Debt Collector vs. Validation Request
Whenever a collector sends a letter claiming you owe a debt you don’t instantly recognize, it’s always a good idea to send a validation request. A validation request is simply a letter that says to the debt collector, “I got this collection notice I don’t recognize about a debt you say I owe; prove it.”
The validation request I sent looked a lot like this:
This is not a refusal to pay. I am sending this letter to you in response to your “settlement offer” (attached.)
This is a notice sent pursuant the Fair Debt Collection Act (FDCPA) that your claim is hereby disputed and validation of this debt is hereby requested. I respectfully request that your office provide me with competent evidence that I have any obligation to pay you.
Please attach the following in reply:
- The contact information of the original creditor.
- A copy of the last billing statement sent by the original creditor.
- The date the alleged debt was originated and the date it became delinquent.
- Provide proof that you are entitled to collect the debt.
- Explain how you calculate what you say I owe.
- This is an attempt to collect your records, any information obtained shall be used for that purpose.
I sent a letter very much like that one via certified mail to Afni’s mailing address. I knew that it was going to take a week or two for Afni to get back to me. Since their collection notice had a T-Mobile account number on it too, I decided to reach out to T-Mobile and see if they could tell me anything about the account.
I called T-Mobile and they were only able to confirm a few things:
They could not pull up the account number that I referenced.
They did not show a delinquent account associated with my social security number.
The customer service representative had no knowledge of what company T-Mobile used to collect on delinquent accounts, and therefore could not comment.
Even though this seems like a whole lot of nothing, it’s actually enlightening on a few fronts.
At the most basic level, this told me that T-Mobile had written off the debt and likely sold it to a debt collector. Why do I say that? Because if T-Mobile had a delinquent account with my name on it, they would have gladly taken payment from me. All businesses exist to make money. Once debt is written off and sold, the debt collector becomes the owner of the debt. So T-Mobile could not accept the payment. Now just because T-Mobile sold the debt to a debt collector doesn’t mean that Afni, Inc. is the debt collector they sold the debt to.
Afni, Inc. Got Back To Me
It took almost exactly a month, but Afni collections sent a response to my request for validation. I received a somewhat terse reply; the relevant passages (emphasis mine) state:
The attached information has been provided by the original creditor as validation of the above account. Thank you for your attention in this matter.
[blah, blah, blah…]
The law limits how long you can be sued on a debt. Because of the age of your debt, we will not sue you for it.
There it was: admission that the account was too old to be legally collectible. Additionally, the attachment they provided showed a due by date about 9 years in the past.
Now here is where things get really interesting: the “attachment” referenced in the above letter wasn’t a real invoice. What do I mean? Well, I had what looked a lot like an invoice attached to that letter. But what I actually had was a computer generated simulation. It had the billing data (as Afni understood it), but it wasn’t a scan of the final invoice printed by T-Mobile or anything like that.
How do I know that? At the bottom of the “invoice” in barely legible type was the following sentence:
This image was generated using a template provided by T-Mobile and your most recent billing data.
In other words, Afni was just taking billing information they had on file and were using it to produce an image that simulates the appearance of an invoice from T-Mobile. It’s not a real invoice — therefore, all other things being equal, it is not actual proof the alleged debt is in any way real. I imagine a lot of people fall for that trick; don’t be one of them.
Taking Stock of the Facts
At this point, I could pretty comfortably conclude:
- T-Mobile had almost certainly sold a delinquent account with my name on it to Afni, Inc. at some point in the past.
The debt was 9 years old and counting.
- The state of Michigan (the only state that matters because that’s where the debt originated) places the statute of limitations on this kind of debt at 6 years. (Each state is different, see this handy chart for more information.)
- Therefore, even as a layman with no formal legal training, I can confidently conclude Afni cannot successfully sue me over this debt.
- Lastly, I could question the admissibility as evidence of a simulated invoice “generated using a template provided by T-Mobile and your most recent billing data” in any just court of law. I am just a layman, but I am skeptical at a gut level about this.
I’ll follow-up shortly with with a post on what I did to get Afni off my back and why I did it.