Cell Phone Debt Collection: Know the Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations on phone carrier debt is two years. Know your rights when an old phone bill is involved.
Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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Were you contacted for payment of an old phone bill? If your phone bill is two years or older, your debt is past the statute of limitations — meaning you can no longer be legally sued for payment on the debt.

That doesn’t mean you’re entirely in the clear, however. Debt collectors may still try to pressure you for payment. Here’s what to know about the statute of limitations on phone bill debt — and how to act if you’re being asked to pay for an old phone bill.

Cell phone statute of limitations

All debts have a statute of limitations. These statutes are typically set by state governments, but phone bills are different. Cell phone debt has a federal statute of limitations of two years. After the statute of limitations has expired on a debt, it is considered “time-barred.”

Debt collectors might still try to collect payment on this debt, no matter how old it is.

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Making even one payment on a phone bill past its statute of limitations can bring it back from the dead, summoning a so-called zombie debt. The statute of limitations will then be reset, and you’ll be vulnerable to a lawsuit for payment.

What to do about an old phone bill

Working with debt collectors can be tricky business. Follow these steps if you’re being contacted for payment on an old phone bill.

Get the facts: Legitimate debt collectors will send you a debt validation letter within five business days of first contact. This will give you information on the debt you allegedly owe.

Know your rights: You have certain protections under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Use these to shield yourself from abusive debt collectors.

Make a plan: There are a few ways to handle a collections account. The best way to handle it depends on whether the debt is past the statute of limitations and whether the debt is actually yours.

  • If the debt is past the statute of limitations: While you can’t be sued for payment, you do still owe the debt. That alone may be enough reason to pay. Otherwise, you can likely ignore the debt with no repercussions beyond the annoyance of a debt collector calling. Under your FDCPA rights, you can demand the debt collector cease contact, but if they sell your debt to another collector you may be contacted in the future.

  • If the debt is not past the statute of limitations: For phone bills still within the statute of limitations, there are a few ways to handle it. Look into payment options for paying a collections account. That will resolve the account and get debt collectors off your back. Be sure to validate any debt before paying it.

  • If the debt isn’t yours: Dispute any debt you’re being asked to pay that isn’t yours. Errors in debt collection are common, and you might be dealing with a misinformed debt collector. Under the FDCPA, debt collection efforts must stop once you dispute the debt.

If you’re sued for a debt — even if it’s past the statute of limitations — don’t ignore it. That can lead to wage garnishment or a bank levy.