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Updated on Author: Contributor: Sergei Lemberg

What to Do if You Receive a Summons

The average person would find the prospect of being hauled into court to explain their debt to a stern, intimidating judge passing judgment on them scary, if not downright terrifying. Therefore, your first instinct on receiving a summons is probably to do whatever you can to make it go away. That includes paying the debt collector whatever they ask, even if it’s above and beyond the initial fee. You may find yourself throwing money you do not have at the collection agency just to avoid going to court. That is why, should you receive a summons, the most important thing to do is not panic.

What is a summons?

A summons is a notice that you are being sued. It is issued by a court clerk when a person who is starting a lawsuit files a complaint, which explains the reasons for the lawsuit. The person filing the lawsuit must serve the person the lawsuit is against with the summons and the complaint, to notify them of the lawsuit and allow them to prepare a defense.

The summons contains information about the party doing the suing, called the plaintiff, and the person being sued, who is called the defendant. It provides the name and address of the court where the action is occurring and tells the defendant the amount of time they have to respond. (Usually twenty-one days). The normal average person will need to engage a lawyer who will have knowledge of court procedures and know how to respond to the complaint. The lawyer will respond to the complaint by filing a request for an extension of time, an answer, or a motion to dismiss within the time period permitted to respond by the court.

You may receive a summons in one of two ways: a sheriff or process server may deliver it to you, along with a copy of the complaint and other documents, at your home or place of employment. Or, you may receive it via certified mail. However you receive that intimidating, formal looking document, the first thing to do is not panic, and the second thing to do is verify that it is a legitimate summons.

You would be justified in automatically assuming that a Sheriff, decked out in full uniform, is handing you a legitimate summons, but you could be mistaken. In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Unicredit America, Inc., Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, No. 14914-2010, the defendant hired actors to pretend to be law enforcement officers to serve fake subpoenas to appear before a fake judge in a fake courtroom to pressure real (not fake) consumers into paying. Of course, this is very much against the law. Section 807 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from faking official documents in an attempt to trick consumers into paying. That doesn’t stop them from resorting to this nefarious tactic, however. You might wonder why a collection agency might engage in behavior they know violates the law. While we cannot know their mindset, we can only imagine that this tactic works often enough that the returns offset whatever consequences may arise from being turned in by the occasional savvy consumer. Don’t fall for their scheme!

However, do not immediately assume that any summons you receive from a debt collector is fake. Collection agencies do file lawsuits, and if you ignore a legitimate summons, there could be grave consequences. A judgment might be entered against you and your wages garnished to pay the debt. Therefore, it is important to know how to go about determining if the summons you received in the mail are legitimate, or just a shady tactic by an underhanded debt collector hoping you will panic and pay.

Signs of a fake summons:

  • Spelling errors – your name, your hometown, the name of the court the summons allegedly originated from, are all spelled wrong. If you immediately notice a number of glaring, obvious spelling errors, it is likely the summons you are holding in your hand is a fake. Typos do happen, however, so you probably want to go to the next step in the analysis to make sure.
  • Inconsistent or suspicious wording – Summonses, or citations, as some courts call them, can vary from state to state, but they all have some things in common. They contain the name of the plaintiff (here, the debt collector) the defendant who is being sued (you), your address, and inform you how long you have to respond and where. (In many courts, this is 21 days). Summonses are usually general forms with pertinent information plugged in, so they should not contain any personal threats directed at you. If you see something like that on your summons, it is likely to be a fake.
  • Does it list the court and the court’s address? If you are being sued, part of the basic information you need to know is where you are being sued


About the author:

Contributor: Sergei Lemberg

Sergei Lemberg is a consumer rights attorney, practicing since 2006, whose practice focuses on consumer law, class actions and personal injury litigation. He is known for a United States Supreme Court case (Facebook v. Duguid) defending consumers from autodialers under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 to send unsolicited text messages. He is also the author of Defanging Debt Collectors, a book that teaches consumers how to battle debt collectors and win.

See more posts from Contributor: Sergei Lemberg
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