The letters...the calls...dealing with collection agencies can be stressful. After all, it is their job to get you to pay up. But if you understand your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Act and learn a few negotiation tricks, you can take control of the situation.
Debt collection is a $15 billion dollar a year industry, and it's growing fast. There are thousands of companies in the US that buy debts for pennies on the dollar and attempt to recover what is owed. Collections agencies buy past-due debts from cell phone companies, credit card companies, lenders, public libraries, video stores, gyms, cable companies, medical offices, and more. Then they contact the consumer who owes the debts and negotiate to have it paid back. Collectors can find out where borrowers live and work and can contact them by phone, mail, fax, or telegram.
You can check your credit score each month using Credit.com's free Credit Report Card. This completely free tool will break down your credit score into sections and give you a grade for each. You'll see, for example, how your payment history, debt and other factors affect your score, and you'll get recommendations for steps you may want to consider to address problems. In addition, you'll also find credit offers from lenders who may be willing to offer you credit. Checking your own credit reports and scores does not affect your credit score in any way.
If have an overdue debt sent to a collections agency, you will be contacted by the collector and sent a letter explaining the situation. You should open and read this letter immediately, since you only have 30 days to dispute certain facts. If there are errors or if the letter is a mistake, you should notify the collector and related creditors right away to resolve the matter. You should keep notes about all of your communications with collectors as well as copies of all correspondence for future reference.
When your debt is sent to collections you will also see a new record appear on your credit report. This collection record will remain on your credit report for 7 years from the last 180-day late payment on the original account, whether or not you pay the debt back. In the event that your original account is also on your credit report, both account records will remain on your report for 7 years. This is also true if a new record appears when your debt is sold to a new collection agency. Review the information a collection agency posts on your credit report very carefully. It is fairly common for collectors to report incorrect facts to help with negotiations.
You have several rights under the Fair Debt Collection Act. You can request that a collector does not contact you anymore, or only contacts you by mail. Under this law, collectors cannot threaten you or pretend to be a credit bureau. They cannot purposely tell you that you owe more than you really do, use obscenities, or tell you that you are guilty of a crime. [Related Article: The Top 10 Debt Collection Rights for Consumers]
Once you have verified that the debt is accurate and read your rights under the FDCA, you need to consider your options. In most situations, you should negotiate a deal, pay the collector, and work on rebuilding your credit. However, if you have other debts that are not in collections and need to paid, you should probably work on paying these debts first. Keep in mind that this collection record will remain on your credit report for 7 years, whether you pay or not. In most cases, it doesn't make sense to pay the collection debt before you can afford to do so comfortably.
When you decide to pay the collection debt, you should contact the collector to see if you can negotiate an agreement. Since collectors buy debt for pennies on the dollar, they are often open to negotiating a reduced settlement. Some collection agencies will also offer to take the record off your credit report if you pay the debt, although this is technically illegal. Have the collector send you the terms of your settlement in writing. You may need to use this letter if the debt resurfaces.
Because collection agencies buy such a wide variety of debts, debt collections are common occurrences. Medical collections are especially common because of policies that leave the consumer ultimately responsible for medical bills even if the insurance company was supposed to cover the expense. You should always pay a debt that is in danger of being sold to collections (even using a credit card or if the debt is incorrect) to prevent damage to your credit reports. You can continue your dispute after the debt has been paid. People also commonly end up with collection debts when their bills are sent to an incorrect or old address. Be sure to track your bills closely and file a change of address form with the post office when you move.
Being contacted by a collections agency can be scary and overwhelming. If you take a step back, read your rights, and think about your options, you can take control of the situation. Credit.com is here to help you get your finances back in order.