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Collections Crash Course

Debt Collections Crash Course

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.

Collections Basics

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.

Find Out Where You Stand

You can check your credit score each month using’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.

First Steps

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.

Impact on Your Credit

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.

Your Rights

You have several rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices 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]

What To Do

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.

Negotiating a Deal

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.

Preventing Collections

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. is here to help you get your finances back in order.

  • Susan

    I have medical bill that has gone to collections and I have been making regular payments for over a year. The original balance is now down to $675. The collection agency has added over $2200. for legal and other fees. They are demanding $450. per month which is causing me to fall behind on my mortgage. What are my options?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Collection fees can increase the amount you owe, but this sounds like it may be excessive. (What are the “legal fees” for? Have they sued you?)

      I’d suggest you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and check with your state Attorney General to see if they can clarify what kinds of fees can be added to collection accounts.

  • Credit Experts

    Who did you sign up for a class with? Do you know the school’s policy? And do you have documentation of when you notified the school that you would not be taking the class you signed up with?

  • Kaisei

    You signed up for a class and took a spot that could have been filled by a paying student. They are well within their rights to demand that money even though you didn’t attend the class. Unless you reported to them that you were not going to attend prior to the class starting then they will require your money and first born son.

  • Cheryl

    I am in. Florida and a year ago I needed a new electric wheelchair so I contacted bcbs of IL, they told me who to go to a provider in their network ,they ecieverd my prescription for the chair early February, they came and did the home visit middle of February, got approval from bcbs in March, they ordered the chair from quickie in March, chair was shipped via ups in March, received by medical company April 2nd I believe then delivered to me next day. They billed bcbs of IL they day they dropped the chair off to me, bcbs was cancelled April st. Bcbs denied and said they have to go by the date medical company put on Bill as claim date, the medical company refused to re-bill with a different date such as approval date, order date or ship date. Spent months on phone with them trying to resolve this but they would not budge. Our new insurance would not cover it as they are out of network…now a collections company is calling. I’m very frustrated and at a loss.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Cheryl – I am at a loss myself. Sounds like you’ve been caught in the byzantine world of insurance billing. There are attorneys who specifically handle health insurance claim disputes. Have you tried reaching to one of them?

  • Gerri Detweiler

    It’s hard to say because I don’t know exactly what you mean by posting as a new debt. Does it list the original date of delinquency?

  • Gerri Detweiler

    I suppose anything is possible, but remember that a collection agency would have to pay the bureaus to monitor their accounts this way, and quite honestly I’m not sure that they would want to take on that expense for debts they may or may not collect.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    The open date and the last reported date are not really the important dates here. The thing you need to confirm is the original date of delinquency – the date you fell behind with the credit card issuer. If that is not reported, then I suggest you disputed with the credit reporting agency. The CRA needs that accurate date in order to know how long to report it. Read: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes

  • Gerri Detweiler

    I am not aware of any specific requirements that they notify you in a particular way before sending an account to collections. My understanding is that generally if the bill is unpaid it can go to a collection agency. However, there may be state laws that apply, so you certainly could contact your state attorney general’s office for more information. You could also consider filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which is looking into collection practices.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    If you gave them authorization to take money out of your account (which we never recommend) then it may be legal – depending on the authorization you signed. Do you still have a copy?

  • Gerri Detweiler

    A collection agency that is collecting on behalf of the creditor may still report the debt as a collection account.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Yes check your credit reports. This is a situation where you may want to spring for three bureau
    credit monitoring for a few months. If it does show up on your credit reports, you may have a case for credit damage so keep good documentation.

    • Jesse

      Thank you so much for your reply I will keep a close eye on my credit report

      • Gerri Detweiler

        You’re welcome. Let us know how this turns out!

  • Meg

    How do I know if the collection company “owns” my debt now or if is indeed negotiating on behalf of the original credit card company? Do I have a right to know that information?

    • Credit Experts

      Meg —

      You can call the original creditor to see whether it sold the debt to the collector you are talking with, or you can check your credit reports. (There are also some other ways to verify, and we wrote about it here: How to Figure Out Who Your Debt Collector Is)

  • Lee

    will I receive a 1099 from the collection agency in 2014 when I paid $14790.00 for voluntary surrender of two vehicles. thank u

    • Gerri Detweiler

      I have no idea if they will send one or not, but the IRS says cancellation of indebtedness income should be reported whether or not you receive the 1099-C.

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