Can Department Store Collect Debt from 1996?

Erin emailed me today with a debt collection question. I thought others might benefit from the answer.

“I received a collection letter from an account for a department store that was opened in 1996, for a total amount of $983.00.  And they had three different payment options, including one w/ a 50% discount.  I am sure my ex-husband and I paid this off.  When I asked my ex-husband (he handled all of our finances while married), he does not remember if we did or did not and claims he has no documentation going back that far.  Can this be legit?  Can a store/collection agency open an account to collect debt that far back?  What rights do I have?”

Erin, first you need to find out if this is the actual department store trying to collect an old debt or a debt collector who has purchased the debt for pennies on the dollar from the store just hoping to make a buck.

Chances are it’s the latter.

Every collector must send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much money you owe within five days after they first contact you. This notice also must include the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money, and how to proceed if you don’t think you owe the money.

If the debt collector can not prove you owe the debt by presenting a statement of when you charged the amount and what you purchased, then you do not have to pay it. Most of the time when a store sells old debts it has given up on collecting to a debt collector, they do not pass along all of the statements and paperwork needed to prove you really owe that money.

The Federal Trade Commission has more information on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and your rights.

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