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Forget Paying That Debt Collector. Do This Instead.

How to respond by email to a debt collection letter

· Debt Collection,Veeto Tips,Leviton Law Firm,Commercial Collector,Waste Management

That one time you outsmarted a debt collector with just three email replies

Let's say that you wake up one morning to find the below debt collection letter sitting in your email inbox. Aside from the email's subject, which only reads RE: Waste Management, Inc. V. [Your Company] LLC - $32017.19 - Case No. 93510213, you find basically zero information in the email about why the debt collector is alleging that you owe $32,000 to Waste Management.

First Letter From The Debt Collector

Sir/Madam,

You are hereby advised that our law firm has been retained with regard to the outstanding balance referenced above for breach of contract and unpaid invoices.

Arrangements for the payment of this account must be made immediately in order to avoid potential litigation of this matter. As a courtesy, we will grant you a three-day period to remit payment in full or to contact our office to discuss a payment plan. Should you fail to respond, our firm will give a legal recommendation to our client to enforce collection and protect their interests.

To remit payment, please follow the wire instructions below:

The Leviton Law Firm LTD – IOLTA Attorney Trust Account

ABA/Routing number: 071901604

Account number: 8100729733

First Midwest Bank

8750 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Suite 1300

Chicago, IL  60631

Please reply to this email with a copy of the wire receipt to confirm the payment has been sent.

Respectfully,

Joseph Cannon

847-621-6119

Joseph Cannon

Account Executive

The Leviton Law Firm

Don A. Leviton, Supervising Attorney

Admitted to Practice in Illinois and the District of Columbia

Phone - 847-621-6119 • Fax: 847-781-1031

One Pierce Place, Suite 725W • Itasca • IL 60143

Now, you do own a company called [Your Company] LLC, which the subject of that email names; and your business  was formerly a customer of Waste Management. So, you're not entirely confused as to why this commercial debt collector might be naming your company and Waste Management in the same email message.

But because your most recent communication with Waste Management had regarded their failures to perform as agreed during your tenure as a Waste Management customer, you were already aware that Waste Management disputed your position that, as you had previously claimed, Waste Management actually owed you money on account of their breach of the contract.

With that context in mind, then, you interpret this communication from Waste Management's debt collector to be Waste Management's attempt to strongarm you into conceding your position in the ongoing dispute. (Actually, this is not unique to Waste Management: many companies use this tactic as a bad faith way to avoid having to put the relative merits of their counterposition to a test; c'est la vie.)

Anyway, because you recognize that the collector's email body failed to state the exact basis of the alleged debt, referred only generically to "our client," and also failed to state your name at all ("Sir/Madam"), you decide to reply, just five minutes later, to ask:

Who is your client?

To throw the collector a bone, though, you inlcude your name in the signature of your email reply.

...and what do you know? About two hours later, the collector replies, this time using the name you had inlcuded in your email signature.

Second Communication From The Debt Collector

Mr. Person,

We have been retained by Waste Management and Altus Receivables Management. It is our understanding that both Waste Management and Altus have tried to resolve this matter with you directly to no avail.

It is our intention to resolve the matter amicably if possible? Let us know how you would like to proceed?

Respectfully,

Joseph Cannon

847-621-6119

Joseph Cannon

Account Executive

The Leviton Law Firm

Don A. Leviton, Supervising Attorney

Admitted to Practice in Illinois and the District of Columbia

Phone - 847-621-6119 • Fax: 847-781-1031

One Pierce Place, Suite 725W • Itasca • IL 60143

You notice, however, that the collector did not clearly answer your question in this reply. Instead, the collector gave what might have been an answer to your question, but couched it in a way that made it unclear whether it did answer the question, particularly given what the collector had previously stated in the first collection letter.

For example, to whom exactly was the collector referring in the first collection letter when the collector wrote "our firm will give a legal recommendation to our client to enforce collection and protect their interests[?]" That language ("our client," singlular) suggests that the collector's first letter had been sent on behalf of a single client, not two clients simultaneously. Yet the collector's second communication stated that the collector had "been retained by" two different companies. So you decide to cut to the chase in your next reply, which you send about an hour after you received the collector's second email to you:

Do you have a retainer agreement with Waste Management and Altus Receivables Management to prove that you were retained by Waste Management and Altus Receivables Management?

This time, the collector goes silent...and you wonder why, until the collector finally replies the following day.

Third Communication From The Debt Collector

Mr. Person,

See the attached letter. We will advance our file an additional 7 days until March 13, 2020 to allow you a chance to respond in good faith.

Regards,

Joseph Cannon

847-621-6119

Joseph Cannon

Account Executive

The Leviton Law Firm

Don A. Leviton, Supervising Attorney

Admitted to Practice in Illinois and the District of Columbia

Phone - 847-621-6119 • Fax: 847-781-1031

One Pierce Place, Suite 725W • Itasca • IL 60143

Because your question had been whether this debt collector had a retainer agreement with Waste Management and Altus Receivables Management, you open the attachment to collector's third email to you, expecting the attachment to be some sort of retainer agreement.

...and, uh, that is not what you find. Instead, you find the letter below.

Forged "Authorization" Letter From The Debt Collector

Mar 5, 2020

To Whom It May Concern

This letter is to verify that Altus Global Trade Solutions and Leviton Law Firm are authorized to accept and Negotiate payment on behalf of Waste Management.

Please work directly with Altus and/or Leviton Law Firm to resolve the matter at hand.

Regards,

Waste Management

1001 Fannin Street, Suite 4000

Houston, TX 77002

The letter also features a stretched-out Waste Management logo in the upper right corner of the page, the kind of of image distortion you might see on a document created by someone who is fairly new to computers but is really enjoying "messing around" with clipart.

Then there was the text of the letter itself.

  • It lacked basic puncuation.
  • It did not state who the author of the letter was.
  • It used passive voice ("are authorized") to avoid having to say who exactly gave authorization.
  • It named Waste Management at the bottom of the letter but omitted any signatory from Waste Management.

It was, in short, not a retainer agreement. Nor did it prove, in any way, that the debt collector had been "retained by Waste Management and Altus Receivables Management[,]' whether in general or with specific regard to any account pertinent to you. You suspect that whoever wrote this letter tried his/her darndest, though, to conceal all of those shortcomings--by using Waste Management's logo (albeit hamhandedly) and by adding Waste Management's name and address to the bottom of the letter, to make it appear as though Waste Management had authoried the letter. Anyway, you realize that the letter is most likely not what the collector had hoped you would believe it to be.

So, about five minutes after you received this hilariously inept letter, you once again reply to the collector in a way that cuts to the chase:

Who authored that letter?

...and less than ten minutes later, the collector sends his final communication to you.

Final Communication From The Debt Collector

Mr. Person,

We have been more than accommodating in providing you with documentation. It appears you have no intention of addressing the debt voluntarily and we will be seeking authorization to file suit. Any further questions you have can be address with your legal counsel. Good luck to you.

Regards,

Joseph Cannon

847-621-6119

Joseph Cannon

Account Executive

The Leviton Law Firm

Don A. Leviton, Supervising Attorney

Admitted to Practice in Illinois and the District of Columbia

Phone - 847-621-6119 • Fax: 847-781-1031

One Pierce Place, Suite 725W • Itasca • IL 60143

...and with that, you've outmaneuvered the debt collector: you never hear from this debt collector again, and the collector's thinly veiled threat contained in the final communication ("we will be seeking authorization to file suit.") never comes true.

Now, how did you accomplish that?

Let's deconstruct it.

The first part of the formula is everything you did not do, all of the things people typically do when contacted by a debt collector.

  1. You did not pay any money to the debt collector (of course).
  2. You did not you try to "negotiate down" the amount the collector alleged [Your Company] LLC to owe.
  3. You did not admit to the alleged debt.
  4. You did not even ask for any details about the alleged debt: the amount alleged to be owed, any sort of evidence in support of the alleged debt, etc.
  5. You did not try to make legal arguments to the collector as to whether you had indeed "breached the contract" or any factual argument about whether you in fact had "unpaid invoices."
  6. You did not share any details with the collector about your former relationship with Waste Management.

By not doing any of these things, you effectively derailed the collector from his script set an entirely different agrenda for the dialogue. In fact, you might even say that you sent the collect on "errands" for you: go get this, go get that, etc.

But the second part of the formula shows that you were not just playing games with the collector. You were, in fact, quite strategic in what you chose to say, or ask, and when--and the end result, as you saw, was that the collector essentially gave up and went away, with none of doom and gloom threatened by the collector ever coming true (note, though, that this last part had also to do with the relative merits of your legal position versus Waste Management's even though you don't see those differences featured in this article).

The questions you asked, and when you asked them, were not arbitrary. You essentially deconstructed what you figured the collector's legal claim would have to be in order for the collector to have a valid and enforceable claim against you for the alleged debt, and then you asked the collector to commit to an answer on each of those points, one at a time. Now, of course, you only ended up getting two questions-deep on that list before the collector gave up. But, even so, you can still see the framework of the strategy sampled here.

So, that's how you respond by email to a debt collector...

In summary, put the collector on trial. That's the tactic.

If [Your Company] LLC owed $32,000 to someone, then an early question should be to whom? If a debt collector contacts you on behalf of someone, then you can usually ask "Who is your client?" to check the to whom box, which is what you did here. The nice thing about this question is that, whereas the initial communications you receive from collectors are usually automated, replies to your replies are usually human-written; and human-written messages in a sweat-shop environment like a debt collector's "sales floor" tend be affected by the laziness of the human writing them (not necessarily because debt collectors want to be lazy but because the volume-demands of the job often require it). So, the answers you tend to get to this question are insufficient for the purpose of "validating" a legal claim that you indeed owe an alleged debt (for example: if you had an unpaid debt to Waste Management, Inc., then a "WM" response from the collector would be insufficient).

Here, though, the insufficiency of the collector's answer was actually overshadowed by the collector's introduction of a second entity not referenced in the initial communicaiton. So, you decided to go that side path when the collector presented it to you: who exactly is your client--company A or company B?

However, even that discrepancy was overshadowed when the collector next introduced what appeared to be a forged "authorization" letter; and that is the moment that the collector unwittingly walked into your trap--because at that point, the collector had arguably violated the law and exposed itself to a degree of liability far more costly than the potential gain of collecting on this debt.

Your next reply revealed to the collector that you knew what you were doing all along, and that you deftly set the trap the collector had foolishly walked into. That's why the collector went away, and that's why you won.

...and that's what you should do, too, instead of paying the debt collector money without qualification.

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