The statute of limitations is a rule that sets a time limit within which a creditor may sue you for payment of a debt. The length of time that a creditor has to sue you on an unpaid debt varies from state to state. The time limit might also depend on whether your agreement with the creditor is in writing, and whether the debt is a special type, like a revolving or open-ended account.
If the time limit to sue on the old debt expired under your state's statute of limitations, that doesn't mean that a creditor or bill collector must stop contacting you about it. They can ask you to pay the debt. They just can't legally sue you, or threaten to sue you, for it.
If the debt that the collector is calling about is several years old, find out what your state's statute of limitations is for a lawsuit to collect the debt. Generally, the statute of limitation begins when you last made a payment, but it can also be the date you last used the account, made a promise to pay, entered a payment agreement, or even acknowledged liability for the debt. The actual date depends on the type of debt and the state law where you live or the state specified in your credit agreement.
But just because the statute of limitations has expired doesn't mean a creditor or collector won't sue you. If you get sued, you'll have to raise the statute of limitations as a defense. If you don't, the creditor or collector might be able to get a judgment against you on an otherwise unenforceable debt. Also, a statute of limitations doesn't eliminate the debt—it just limits the collector's ability to win a court case. But you still might get collection letters or calls about a debt even if the statute of limitations has expired.
If a debt collector contacts you about an old, time-barred debt, be very careful in what you say to the bill collector. If you say or sign anything that might be considered an acknowledgement of the validity of the debt—that is, you agree that you owe that debt even if the statute of limitations to sue has expired—then you might have revived, waived, or extended the statute of limitations. Or, if you make an agreement with that bill collector to pay the old debt, then you also might revive, waive, or extend the statute of limitations.
If you're unsure whether the debt has expired under your state's statute of limitations, and you ask the debt collector if that debt is time-barred, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires that the collector tell the truth. If the debt is time-barred, but the debt collector has threatened to sue you or take other legal action to pressure you into settling that debt, then it might have violated the FDCPA; the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from threatening legal action on a time-barred debt. In addition, if the debt collector lied to you about the age of the debt and whether it had expired under the statute of limitations, then it might have also violated the FDCPA.
If you're contacted about an old, time-barred debt, you should take a look at your credit report. Often, bill collectors or creditors report negative information about the debt as if it's recent information, which might be a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Consult with a legal aid lawyer, another lawyer in your state, or your state attorney general's office to learn the applicable statute of limitations in your state and in your particular circumstances.