Friday, March 31, 2006

Debt expiration dates

Many years ago, I made the brief mistake of subscribing to the Science Fiction Book Club to score some free books. This quickly got annoying, as they would send me their monthly selection every few weeks unless I remembered to send in an "aiee, no, don't send!" slip. I would then have to return the shipped book. Not infrequently, they would fail to log my return. I cancelled my subscription as quickly as I could.

My final return never got logged, and about a year after I ended my subscription I got my first collection letter. In classic collection agency-letter form, this was followed by a barrage of increasingly nastier missives, vaguely suggesting dire consequences if I didn't make right my debt. Said debt was around $18. I figured they would eventually go away, and they did, but it was a few years before the letters dried up entirely.

Cleaning out some old mail a few weeks ago turned up one of those letters, which got me wondering: What's the statute of limitations on debt? Surely, at some point, creditors lose the right to come after you with sharp, pointy lawsuits and credit-record nastygrams.

And lo and behold, they do, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The law mandates how collection agencies can contact alleged debtors, and also forbids chasing debt that's beyond the statute of limitations. Those vary by state, but Bankrate has a nifty chart that offers a good starting point.