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50 Things Anyone Dealing With a Debt Collector Should Know
by Jeanine Skowronski
Getting a debt collection call is never fun. Even in a best-case scenario (it's your debt and you can pay), that outstanding account can cause a headache or two. And if the debt's contentious, not yours or just too darn high, the situation can become (or at least feel) a lot more dire. But knowledge is a superpower when it comes to dealing with a debt collector in any shape or form.
Here are 50 things anyone who's gotten a debt collection call should know.
1. You Have Rights
Yes, a debt collector has every right to collect on a debt you legitimately owe, but there are rules and restrictions (formally known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) that govern how they can go about their business.
2. Old Debts Expire
Each state also has laws specifying how long collectors have to sue you over a debt. In most states, these time limits last for four to six years after the last payment made on the account. You can consult this chart to determine your state's statutes of limitations (SOL), and if you get a call about a very old debt, you should really consult this chart, because ...
3. Zombie Debts Are Real ...
Collection accounts get resold all the time, and it's not uncommon for someone to get a call about a debt that's outside the SOL or no longer owed. The latter is illegal, but the former may not be. The SOL applies to how long a collector has to sue you over a debt, but in many cases, they can still try to get you to pay.
4. ... & You Can Wind Up Reanimating Them
If the old account is legit, you can unwittingly restart the clock on the SOL by paying part of the debt or even agreeing over the phone that it's yours. If you get a call about a debt, be sure to get all the details before saying you owe. That due diligence is doubly important because ...
5. There Are a Lot of Scammers Out There
That's not to say you're talking to one, but you'll want to stay on guard. "Ask the caller for their name, company, street address, telephone number and, if your state licenses debt collectors, a professional license number," writes the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which has more tips for spotting a debt-collection scam on its website.
6. You're Entitled to Written Verification
In fact, FDCPA requires a collector to send a statement outlining the specifics of the debt within five days of contacting you. That notice, which is basically step one in determining whether a debt's legit, must include the amount of money you owe, the name of the original creditor, and what actions to take if you believe the information is wrong.
7. You Can Dispute the Debt
Debt collectors must investigate a debt so long as you file a dispute in writing within 30 days of their initial contact, and they're to cease contact until they verify (again in writing) that you owe the amount in question.
8. Collectors Can't Just Inflate What You Owe
Regarding that amount, a debt collector can charge interest, but only up to the amount stipulated in your contract with the original creditor. Most states also cap the amount of interest and fees a debt collector can charge.
9. You Can Ask Them to Stop Calling
Per FDCPA, a collector must cease contact if you send a letter requesting they do so. That letter won't absolve you of a legitimate debt, but it can curb incessant and heated phones calls, which is important because ...
10. Too Many Calls Are Illegal
Collectors can't call you too early in the morning (before 8 a.m.), too late at night (after 9 p.m.), too many times a day, or at work once you tell them not to. They're also not allowed to use abusive language, including cuss words and name-calling.
11. Collectors Can Contact Friends & Family
They can only do this to locate you. They can't identify themselves as a debt collector, and there are limits on the number of times they can contact a third party.
12. You Can't Inherit a Debt
Speaking of family, you can't inherit a loved one's debt after they die unless, of course, you cosigned on the loan in question. Debts owed by the deceased are generally paid out of their estate, not by friends or family, so don't panic if you're an executor. You can learn more about dealing with a loved one's debt after death here.
13. Ignoring a Debt Can Have Big Consequences
It can be tempting to cut off communication with debt collectors, particularly if they're stepping out of line. But doing so won't make that debt go away. And a debt collection account can just lead to a whole lot of phone calls. For one ...
14. That Account Can Appear on Your Credit Report ...
Debt collectors can report outstanding accounts to the consumer credit bureaus. You can check for one by pulling your free annual credit reports or viewing your free credit report summary on Credit.com.
15. ... But Only if They're Accurate
You can dispute an erroneous debt collection account or an error on a legitimate one, like an inaccurate balance or payment status, with the credit bureaus.
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16. Resale of the Debt Won't Restart the Reporting Clock
If your debt changes hands, as collection accounts often do, that sale does not restart the seven-year credit reporting window. If the new collector re-ages the account, you can dispute the date with the credit bureaus. And if the same account is being reported by multiple collection agencies, that's a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and you can dispute the accounts listed by the agencies that no longer own the debt, too.
17. You'll Soon Get Extra Time to Settle Medical Debts
Thanks to a settlement brokered by state attorney generals back in 2015, the credit bureaus will soon wait 180 days from the time a medical debt was first reported before adding it to your credit file, giving you more time to address bills with your insurance and health care providers. (The settlement gave the bureaus a little over three years to implement these changes.)
18. Not All Collectors Report Right Away
Some collectors will hold off on notifying the bureaus so they can use credit reporting as leverage to get you to pay. This practice is important to note, because it means ...
19. You Can Owe a Debt That's Not on Your Credit Report
Checking your credit can help you verify a debt or track down a debt collector you're looking to pay, but don't take an account's absence as absolute proof you don't actually owe. The collector just may not have reported it to the bureaus yet.
20. Many Collectors Are Willing to Negotiate
Collectors often buy debts for pennies on the dollar, so they don't need to recoup the full amount to turn a profit, and yes, that means one may be willing to let you settle for less. You can find tips for negotiating with collectors (and creditors) here.
21. It Is Important to Get an Agreement in Writing
If your negotiation tactics work, be sure to get the terms the collector is agreeing to in writing, particularly if they involve skipping further adverse action against you.
22. A Collection Account Will Hurt Your Credit Score ...
If it hits your report, a single collection account can cause your credit score to drop 50 to 75 points or more. The better your score, the harder the fall.
23. ... For Quite Some Time ...
Collection accounts, paid or unpaid, can be reported to the credit bureaus for seven years, plus 180 days from the date the original account went delinquent, though its effect on your score will lessen over time. (We've got more on how long stuff stays on your credit report here.)
24. ... Even if You Pay ...
You read that right. Paying a collection account won't guarantee removal from your credit reports. In fact, thanks to their contracts with the credit bureaus, most collection agencies will continue to report the account for that full seven-year timeframe though there are signs that's changing.
25. ... But There Are Reasons to Settle
If the account is sticking around, make sure it's at least (correctly) reported as paid. Paid collections carry less weight than unpaid ones, and some newer credit scoring models even ignore them entirely. Beyond that, settling a debt can stop a collector from taking further action against you. Don't panic, though ...
26. The Debt Itself Won't Land You in Jail
You can't be arrested just because you owe someone money, so if a debt collector keeps talking jail time, they're seriously out of line.
27. No Threats Allowed
In fact, they're illegal. FDCPA prohibits dire threats of arrest, violence, or even a lawsuit if the collector doesn't intend to file one. Having said that ...
28. You Can Be Sued
You can be sued so long as the statute of limitations in your state hasn't expired and you legitimately owe, though there's no guarantee a collector won't try to get a court ruling on a debt you're contesting or otherwise unable to pay.
29. Small Payments Won't You Spare You
A debt collector can still move to sue you for the outstanding balance so long as it's legit and within the SOL. That's why, as we mentioned earlier, it's important to get a payment agreement in writing. A signed agreement not to sue could hold up in court, but even if you have one, don't ignore a court summons.
30. Skipping a Court Date Can Cost You
Failure to appear in court could result in a warrant for your arrest, which is why confusion persists as to whether an unpaid debt can land you in prison. It's more likely your absence will net a default judgment for the collector, which can lead to garnishment.
31. Garnishment Lets a Collector Seize Funds
Usually they'll garnish your paycheck or levy your bank account. In most cases, however, the collector can't do this without a court order. (The exceptions are back taxes, outstanding federal student loans, and unpaid child support.)
32. There Are Limits to How Much They Can Take
Garnishment caps are established by federal law and state law, meaning they can vary, depending on where you live. Some states don't allow garnishment on certain types of debt at all. You can consult a local consumer attorney or call your state Attorney General's office to get an idea of the laws in your area.
33. Certain Assets Are Safe From Garnishment
Those assets include Social Security, disability, and retirement accounts, though things get tricky once those funds hit your bank account, and there are exceptions here, too, that usually involve unpaid federal debts.
34. A Judgment Isn't Always Final
In certain circumstances, say you weren't properly served papers notifying you of the lawsuit, you can ask the court to re-open a judgment or formally file an appeal.
35. It Can Also Be Settled
Since it can be difficult to collect on a judgment, especially if your wages or assets can't be garnished, a collector may be willing to accept a lump sum payment to put the debt to bed. Again, just make sure you get an agreement in writing before forking over any funds.
36. A Judgment Can Blemish Your Credit
Technically, unpaid judgments can remain on your credit reports for seven years or the governing statute of limitations, whichever is longer. Once paid, a judgment must be removed seven years after the date it was entered by the court.
37. But It's Getting Harder
Starting July 1, the credit bureaus won't list a judgment on your credit report unless it includes, at a minimum, your name, address, Social Security number, and/or date of birth. Plus, judgments will be removed if public records aren't checked for updates at least every 90 days.
38. Judgments Can Involve Interest
But, again, this can happen only at the rate specified in the contract you signed with the creditor. There are state-level caps and restrictions at play here as well.
39. Judgments Can Expire
The collector has a set time in which they can collect on a judgment. This SOL varies by state but is often 10 to 20 years long. In most states, it can be renewed. That's why ...
40. Judgments Are Best Avoided
It can be tempting to try to ride out your state's SOL, but unless you're very near or past that due date, it's not really worth chancing a lawsuit, judgment, and subsequent garnishment (with interest!), not to mention the big damage an unpaid account can do to your credit. If you do have a judgment against you, you may want to consider settling.
41. You Can Sue a Debt Collector
You cannot sue simply as a means to get out of a debt you do owe, but if a collector is in clear violation of FDCPA, you can file a claim against them so long as it's within one year of the date the law was violated. You'll need proof that the collector broke the law, though, so it's important to catalog your communications with a debt collector before things potentially take a turn for the worst.
42. Even if They Have the Wrong Number
A collector shouldn't be bothering you about a debt you don't actually owe, so if they continue to harass you after you've made it clear you're not the person they're looking for, that's grounds for a lawsuit.
43. Robocalls to Your Cell Are a Big No-No
Thanks to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), those are illegal. Per TCPA, companies, not just collection agencies, can't call you on your cellphone using an automated telephone system or pre-recorded message without your consent.
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44. ... Unless They're on Behalf of Uncle Sam
Debt collectors working on behalf of the federal government can autodial you, but they're currently limited to three robocalls a month unless you give them permission to call more.
45. Hiring a Lawyer May Not Cost You
Attorneys specializing in debt collection cases typically offer a free consultation, and many will often represent you for free if they think a collector has broken the law. (They'll collect their fees from the plaintiff.)
46. ... & Should Cease Communications
In general, a debt collector can't contact you if you tell them you have an attorney and that attorney is handling your debts.
47. You Can Report Rule-Breakers
Debt collection agencies fall under the purview of the CFPB, so if you're dealing with a debt collector who's way over the FDCPA line, you can file a complaint with the bureau.
48. ... & Scammers, Too
If they're trying to scam you, there's a good chance they're trying to scam others, too. That's why it's important to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and your state Attorney General's office so they can investigate the callers.
49. Bankruptcy Is an Option
Collectors can't try to recoup a debt discharged in bankruptcy, but that doesn't mean you should rush to file. For starters, not all debts are dischargeable. Plus ...
50. It'll Wreck Your Credit
Bankruptcy is a major credit score killer. It can cause your score to drop as much as 200-plus points when it hits your file. And you'll be stuck with the big, old blemish for quite some time. Some bankruptcies can stay on your credit for up to 10 years and can affect your ability to get a loan that entire time. If you're considering bankruptcy, be sure to consult with a consumer attorney.
Remember that there are ways to keep a debt from going to collections. If you fall behind on your payments, contact your creditor immediately to see if you can work out a payment plan or refinance, and keep an eye on your mail. Sometimes bills, particularly medical debts, go to collections simply because you don't know you owe.
Reviewed January 2018
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Jeanine Skowronski is the executive editor of Credit.com. Her work has been featured by The Wall Street Journal, American Banker, TheStreet, Newsweek, Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, MSN, Fox Business, Forbes, CNBC and various other online publications. Follow her at @JeanineSko. More by Jeanine Skowronski here.
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