The phone won’t stop ringing. Debt collectors hound you all hours of the day—at your home, your job, leaving message after message, demanding in no uncertain terms that you pay up.
The calls are persistent and predatory, and quickly find their way to your family and friends. Worried, afraid even, now you’re wondering who or what will come next. They know how to reach you, where you work, where you live.
Anyone who’s had a debt collector come after them knows how scary it can be. To a debt collector, they’re just doing their job -- but to you, you have the problem of being in debt and harassed.. Having a debt turned over to a third-party collection agency can be distressing at best, and absolutely traumatic at worst.
Can you outsmart a debt collector? Not in terms of getting out of your debt obligation. But when you know your rights as a consumer and learn how to stand up to them, you can gain the upper hand to become debt -- and debt collector -- free.
What happens when a debt goes into collections
An unpaid debt doesn’t immediately get sent to a collection agency. You’ll need to be delinquent, or ignoring your payments, for at least three to six months before it’s taken to collections. You’d also need to ignore your creditor’s attempts to contact you, or you’re unable to reach an agreement or payment plan with them. While there are times when you may get surprised by a collection agency over a debt you’ve overlooked, it’s more likely that you’ll be aware when you’ve got a debt on the brink of being sent to collections.
When a creditor decides to pass a debt to a collection agency, they may sell the debt to a collector, but more often your creditor will continue to own the debt but assign it to a collector on a commission basis. The collection agency is paid by the call or letter, providing more motivation for them to contact you as much as possible until you crack under the pressure to pay the debt.
The faster a debt collector begins its attempts to collect a bill from you, the better chance of being paid in full, but that means getting bombarded by calls.
Being hounded by a collector isn’t the big thing to worry about—the longer an account stays in collections, the more damage it does to your credit score.
Debts in collections remain on your credit report up to seven years from the date of delinquency, according to credit bureau Experian. A collection on your credit history can mean a drop of 40 to 70 points to your credit score, making it harder to take out a loan or obtain future credit.
Asserting your rights
It may not seem like you have any rights if you’re under fire from a collection agency that won’t stop contacting you. But there are legal boundaries you’re allowed to set. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can control how and when collectors contact you, and demand them to stop if you feel they’ve crossed the line.
Debt collection agencies may try to bully or intimidate, but they’re prohibited from threatening you, using profanity, or impersonating law enforcement or a lawyer. They’re also only allowed to call you between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Anything outside those times, especially if you’ve asked them repeatedly to stop, can be considered illegal harassment. (For example, if you receive random calls from them at 3 in the morning.)
You can also forbid debt collectors from contacting you at work. If they continue, file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, or call the authorities or an attorney, if necessary.
Dealing with debt collectors
The easiest way to make debt collectors go away is to just pay off your debt in full, but what if you can’t afford it? If you could, you’d have paid off your creditor in the first place. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away, but you don’t have to put up with the bullying and intimidation.
Here’s how to handle disputes with debt collectors on your own terms:
Know the score. It may seem like debt collectors operate by their own set of rules, and the fact is, some of them do. Many get away with preying on people who don’t know their rights. It’s to your advantage to show collectors that you won’t fall victim to their scare tactics. A debt collector is required to notify you in writing within five days of calling you that your account has gone into collections. It should contain all the information on the debt that’s in collections, the amount owed, information on the collection agency, and contact information. Your debt collector has likely taken the time to look you up, from scouring the Web and your social media profiles, to obtaining your phone, email and mailing address. Do the same for them; look up everything you can on them to know who you’re dealing with -- verify their state license through the Attorney General, and check with the Better Business Bureau and other online sources to see if the company is on the level, or just another scammer. Gathering the relevant facts on your collection account and the debt collector prevents details from falling through the cracks.
Call them first; call them out. Keeping a written/recorded log or a record of the times and dates a collector has called you, the agent’s name and what was discussed will prevent you from losing your place in the process if several different debt collectors call to try and throw you off. Take proactivity a step further. If you’ve started getting calls from a debt collector, start calling them before they can call you. If you question the debt in any way or believe it may be in error, you can dispute or challenge it within 30 days of the collector contacting you. By asking them to validate the debt, you can buy time to see if it is in fact real, and how you can best afford to pay it. You can also dispute the debt with the three credit bureaus (TransUnion, Experian and Equifax).
Settle your debts. Before a debt collector becomes involved, try negotiating with your original creditor for a new payment plan. If it means regaining most of their money, they may be willing to work with you before going through the trouble of hiring a collector to do it for them. If that doesn’t work, don’t give up on later attempting to negotiate with the collector. Whether you’re calling or being called, ask to speak with the agency’s supervisor to see if a settlement can be worked out -- a partial payment, perhaps, that removes the collection from your credit report. Offering to pay as much as you can afford -- even if it’s only a small a percentage -- gives them the incentive to start cooperating with you. Plus, if they’re a collector that has purchased debt from your creditor, they likely bought your debt for pennies on the dollar. A partial payment from you may still be a nice profit for them. If they go for it, remember to get the agreement in writing so they don’t renege on it. Should that approach fail, you may consider devising a budget or payment plan with an independent, accredited credit counselor in spite of being pursued by debt collectors. The National Foundation of Credit Counseling is a good place to start a debt relief program.
Keep your cool. Never, ever stoop to the level of a debt collector. Don’t raise your voice, yell, curse, threaten, or scream ad hominem attacks during any contact with them. It may feel good to give them a taste of their own medicine, but if you do they may be able to use your behavior against you in court if you get angry and refuse to pay. Don’t let tempers flare and get the better of you. By remaining respectful, calm and collected, you’ll also be able to approach paying your debt with a clearer head. If necessary, you can speak to an attorney for advice on dealing with a debt collector, or, if necessary, seeking legal action. Letting a lawyer intervene allows you to concentrate more on paying down your debt and less on collections confrontations.