One of the worst things you can do to your credit is miss a bill payment, because of all the things that go into credit scores, payment history has the greatest impact. But missing payments on non-credit accounts — like rent, a cellphone bill or utility payments, which aren’t traditionally reported to credit bureaus or included in credit scores — can damage your credit, too, if the unpaid balance is sent to a debt collector.
A collection account can stay on your credit report for up to seven years, plus 180 days from the missed payment, even after you’ve paid it (you can read more about how long things say on your credit report here). They can really drag down your credit score, and it can be difficult to get a collection account removed from your credit report before that 7-year expiration date. Your best bet is to avoid having a debt sent to a collector in the first place.
For many reasons, that’s not easy, because sometimes people don’t even know they have an unpaid bill until the debt collector contacts them. It can also be hard to predict when a creditor will send the debt to a collector. (We’ve gotten a few questions from readers about this.)
We asked John C. Heath, a credit expert and consumer attorney for Lexington Law, a Credit.com partner, how quickly a creditor can send an unpaid bill to a debt collector.
“Generally, as soon as the default in payment has occurred,” Heath wrote in an email. “For instance, if you are scheduled to pay an amount on the first of March, and fail to pay that amount on that date. You could be sent to collections on the 2nd. If there is a contractual grace period, the creditor cannot send the account to collections until the grace period has expired.”
You may be able to head off potential problems with debt collectors by communicating with your creditor (or landlord, doctor’s office, utility company, etc.) if you’re struggling to make payments on schedule. (After all, they want to get paid, rather than write off your debt as a loss.) If you do end up with a collection account on your credit report, you could potentially have it removed. If not, you can focus on other aspects of your credit, like paying down debt and making future payments on time, to try and rehabilitate your credit scores going forward.
It’s also a good idea to regularly review your credit for mistakes, because credit report errors are common and can unnecessarily damage your credit. You’re entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and you can get more frequent updates with a free credit report summary on Credit.com.