If you’re in debt, you’re likely getting notices and phone calls from debt collectors. But, it can be hard to know which collector to work with or whether their information is accurate. The first step toward resolving collection accounts is making sure that the debt is valid and that the person or company calling has the right to collect. This process can be a tangled web. Here’s how to sort it out.
If you’re in debt, you’re likely getting notices and phone calls from debt collectors. But, it can be hard to know which collector to work with or whether their information is accurate. Sometimes, you’ll hear from more than one collection agency or debt buyer about the same debt. Or maybe you know that a debt was sent to collections but haven’t heard from a debt collector and don’t know who to contact.
The first step toward resolving collection accounts is making sure that the debt is valid and that the person or company calling has the right to collect. This process can be a tangled web. Here’s how to sort it out.
Start With the Original Creditor
Sometimes, you know that a debt has gone to collections, but that’s all you know. Maybe you contacted the creditor and they said that the debt was no longer being held by their office. Maybe you got a letter from a collection agency months ago but threw it away or lost it. Whatever the situation, the original creditor can be a quick and easy source of information. They likely won’t be able to discuss your debt with you after it’s been sent to collections. But they can often provide you with the name and contact information for the debt collector. This information will help you get in touch with the collection agency. It will also help you sort out legitimate debt collection calls from scams.
Collecting Information From a Collection Agency
If your first instinct is to click “ignore” when a collection agency calls, you’re not alone. Many collection calls go unanswered, and many notices go straight into the garbage unopened. It’s easy to see why. Being in debt is stressful, and high-pressure tactics from debt collectors make it worse. Most people would pay their bills if they could. Being berated or insulted by a collection agent won’t make the money magically appear. Still, there are good reasons to pick up the phone. You should also open collection notices right away and read them carefully.
Be prepared to see unfamiliar names. Debts are often passed from an original creditor to an outside collection agency or sold to a debt buyer. Over time, the debt may be sold more than once or there may be more than one collection agency involved. It’s not unusual to receive a bill from a company you’ve never heard of. You may even receive collection notices from one company for a few months and then get a call from a different company about the same debt.
It’s important to know who you are dealing with and to make sure they have the right to collect the debt before you give out any information. You’ll also need to be cautious about confirming that you owe the debt or agreeing to pay even a small amount of money. The reasoning behind this guidance is explained in more detail in the section of this piece about dealing with collection agencies. The bottom line is that when you talk to a debt collector, you’ll want to gather information, not offer it.
Debt Collectors and The FDCPA
When a collection agency or debt buyer contacts you, you’ll want to exercise your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The collection agency or debt buyer must identify themselves. They can’t lie to you about who they are, the amount of your debt, or actions they might take. Start by asking for the name of the debt collector and their phone number, mailing address, and any other contact information.
The FDCPA also requires a third-party debt collector to validate the debt if you request it. If you make the request within 30 days of the debt collector contacting you for the first time, they can’t take any more collection action until they’ve validated the debt. Outside the 30-day period, you can still request validation, but the collector can keep trying to collect. They can also report the debt to credit reporting agencies.
How to Request Validation
Send the collection agency or debt buyer a letter asking for more information about the debt. At a minimum, the FDCPA requires them to tell you:
Who they are
How much you allegedly owe
How to find out who the original creditor was
What to do if you want to contest the debt
If they can’t validate the debt, they can’t try to collect from you.
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Check Your Credit Report
There are many types of consumer credit reports. When you hear that phrase standing alone, it usually means the consumer credit reports prepared by the three major credit bureaus. The big three are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
These credit reporting agencies collect information from lenders, debt collectors, and public records. They can be a good source of information about your debts. Once each year (and more frequently right now as a result of the pandemic), you can get a free copy of your credit report from each agency. Be careful: Searching “free credit report” online will turn up many businesses that want to sell you something. The three major credit bureaus have a joint website for officially requesting your free report.
Not every debt will appear on your credit report. For instance, most debt that is more than seven years old must be removed from your credit report. Also, some creditors and debt collectors don’t report to credit bureaus or may not report to all of them. Medical bills may take longer to appear on your credit report than other types of delinquent debt. In other words, your credit report is a useful, but not perfect, source of information.
Compare the information on your credit reports with the information that you receive from any collection agency. Be aware that credit reporting agencies can make mistakes. So can the creditors and debt collectors that report to them. If something doesn’t look right, another federal law protects you. Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), if you dispute an entry on your credit report, the agency is required to investigate.
Review Your Personal Records
If you can’t find information about a debt on your credit report or the entry on your credit report seems wrong, check your personal records. Ideally, this means a neatly organized file folder filled with consecutively dated credit card statements or an online archive. Or perhaps you still have access to log in to your account on the original creditor’s website.
It may not be that simple, but don’t give up too easily. Search your email archives, including your junk mail or spam folder. If you’re the type to throw ominous-looking mail in a drawer unopened, pull it out and take a look. Then, watch out for debt-related mail and open it promptly as it arrives. If you think you made payments on a debt a collector says is unpaid, check your bank account statements.
Make a list of the information you gather from your personal records. Compare it to the information you found on your credit report and the information you got from the collection agency.
Dealing With Collection Agencies
Identifying the collection agency is just the first step. It’s important to get organized and take a step-by-step approach when dealing with collection agencies. The next step is to make sure that the debt they are trying to collect is yours and that the amount is correct. If you are being contacted about a debt or debts that you don’t believe you owe, make sure you request verification. Use the guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to make sure that you’re protecting your legal rights.
You will also want to dispute the entry with any credit reporting agency showing a debt you don’t owe or that shouldn’t be on your credit report for some other reason. You should send whatever proof you have along with your dispute. For instance, if you already paid the debt, send copies of your receipts or statements from the creditor showing your payments. If you didn’t take out the loan, you may be a victim of identity theft or your credit file may have gotten mixed with someone else’s. The first step to discover and correct that is to send a dispute so the credit reporting agency will be required to investigate.
Special Considerations For Old Debt
Even if you owe the debt, it may be too old to collect and/or to appear on your credit report. Generally, debt can stay on your credit report for up to seven years from the time the account went into default. When a debt drops off your credit report because it’s too old, it also stops affecting your credit score. If the debt is too old to be on your report but is still showing up, you can dispute it and the credit reporting agency will have to remove the entry from your credit report. Removing negative entries can improve your credit score.
When it comes to collecting old debt, things work a little differently. How long a debt collector has to file a lawsuit against you depends on the statute of limitations in your state. Some statutes of limitations for debt collection are as short as three years, while others may be 10 years or longer. Some debt that is too old to be on your credit report is still fair game for a lawsuit. And some debt that’s outside the statute of limitations may still appear on your credit report.
If your debt is outside the statute of limitations, the debt collector is still allowed to call you and ask you to pay. But, they can’t sue you, and they’re not allowed to claim that they will. In that situation, you can send the debt collection agency a letter and tell them to stop contacting you. With a few exceptions, they can’t contact you if you tell them to stop.
Be very careful when interacting with a collection agency regarding debt that is outside the statute of limitations or close to the statute of limitations. Often, they will ask you for a very small payment to “show good faith.” The payment may be as little as $5 or $10. You may think that there’s no harm in giving them a small payment to get them off the phone, but doing so will likely restart the statute of limitations. In other words, a debt collector who can no longer sue you may be able to sue you if you make a payment. In some cases, even something you say may open the door to pursuing a claim that would otherwise be too old.
The rules discussed above about debt collectors identifying themselves and validating debt are just the beginning. The FDCPA offers significant protections to consumers dealing with debt collection agencies and debt buyers. It’s a good idea to learn more about these rights, especially if you are having problems with a debt collector.
If a debt collector violates your rights, you can report them to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or the CFPB. These agencies don’t represent individual consumers, but they enforce regulations and may take action against debt collectors with a pattern of breaking the rules. If your rights have been violated, you may be able to hold offending creditors accountable for their unlawful behavior.
Paying The Debt
If the debt is valid and you want to pay it, talk to the debt collector. Often, a collection agency has some flexibility to settle for less than the full amount of the debt. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a debt buyer. You’ve probably seen advertisements for debt settlement companies saying they can settle your debt for a fraction of what you owe. But, often, you can do that on your own.
The collector may be willing to accept a lump-sum partial payment and write off the rest of the debt. Or they may make a payment arrangement that allows you to pay a little at a time. Be realistic when you negotiate. The worst thing you can do is make promises you can’t keep. Do not agree to a lump-sum payment or monthly payment arrangement unless you are confident that you can make the agreed payments on time.
There’s no upside to hiding from collection agencies. Talking to them is the first step toward resolving your debt or determining that you’re not responsible for the debt. Get the information you’ll need to do your own research. Verify using your credit report and your own records, and demand that the collection agency validate the debt.
If the debt isn’t yours, is outside the statute of limitations, or you have other defenses, assert your rights. If your debts have been validated and they’re unmanageable, Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy may be a solution. If you need help or are uncertain about how to move forward, talk to an attorney to learn more about your rights and options.