If you’re in debt, chances are debt collectors will find you. That’s their job, after all. And when your financial past comes back to haunt you, it can be anywhere between a headache and a nightmare, depending on your situation.
Here’s what you should do when debt collectors start calling.
Make Sure It’s Not a Scam
Before anything, you want to make sure the debt collector is legit. There are so many scams out there. Here are a few red flags to keep in mind:
- The “collector” is harassing: Legal site Nolo says that while regular debt collectors can be intimidating and rude, scammers are often outrightly abusive and threatening. They’ll usually threaten you with lawsuits or jail time.
- They demand payment immediately: Again, regular collectors have time-sensitive requests, too. But a scammer will usually demand payment “today,” along with a threat.
- They don’t accept many forms of payment: If they have a very specific request about how you should pay, that’s a big red flag. Most true collection agencies offer multiple methods of payment via their website, mailing address, or over the phone.
- Someone answers immediately when you call: Most companies have phone systems. If someone answers right away when you call, it may be a scam. Also, be wary if you keep dealing with the same person. Legit companies have multiple agents.
It also helps to know the law. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prevents collectors from a handful of practices, including calling before 8 am, calling after 9 pm, calling you at work, and harassing you with repeated calls.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to expose these scams. Here’s how to do it:
- Get written notice: Don’t discuss any debt until you get it in writing. The collector has to send you written notice of your debt within five days of initial contact. This notice includes the debt amount, name of the credit, and a description of your rights per the Fair Debt Collection Practices. CreditCards.com points out that legit collectors will usually send this before calling, anyway.
- Ask these questions: What is the name, address, and phone number of the company you’re calling from? What is the name and address of the debtor you’re trying to reach? What are the last four digits of the debtor’s Social Security number?
- Request a validation: According to CreditCards.com, you have within 30 days of first contact to request a validation of the debt, as long you do it in writing. Find sample letters here.
Check Your Credit Report
You should always request validation of your debt, but you should verify it yourself, too. This is why it’s important to keep tabs on your credit report—so you know what you owe. Of course, when you have a multitude of debts, this isn’t going to be fun. But it’s necessary.
If you haven’t already, request a free copy of your credit report. Second, learn how to read it. It’s probably also a good idea to make a list of your debts and come up with a repayment plan, but that’s a whole different post (thankfully, we’ve already written it). But knowing your debt payoff plan can help you prioritize the debt in question.
At the very least, though, you want to be familiar with the particular debt the collector is calling about.
Consider a Debt Management Plan
Repaying your debt in full is probably the most responsible thing to do. Getting out of debt is a great financial goal, and you can usually work with the collection agency to come up with a new payment plan. The collector might call it a debt management plan when they offer it.
Usually, it involves reducing your monthly payment and extending your payment term so you can eventually pay what you owe.
Of course, since the term is extended, you’ll be paying more in interest overall. But it’s something to consider if you want to get out of debt, and you may be able to work out a better interest rate in the process.
Know What Happens If You Settle
Aside from a debt management plan, the collector will probably offer a settlement–an amount lower than your original debt, with the promise that the debt will be closed if you pay that amount.
We’ve questioned the moral gray area of debt settlement before. But debt settlement is a widespread financial practice that exists, so we’ll report the facts and leave it to you to decide what’s best. Here’s what you should know before deciding to settle.
- It’s not great for your credit: If you’re more than 90 days late, settling probably won’t impact your credit score too much. But let’s say you’re current on repayments and decide to settle instead. According to credit expert Todd Ossenfort, the collector doesn’t apply your payment immediately. They hold it while they attempt to negotiate a lower amount with the creditor. In the meantime, you’re missing payments and your score will “take a beating,” as he puts it.
- You might have to pay taxes: In some cases, you’ll have to pay taxes on the amount of debt forgiven.
If you settle for at least $600 less than the original balance, you’ll probably receive a 1099-C “cancellation of debt” form from the IRS. They consider your forgiven amount taxable income.
- There’s a statute of limitations on debt: Nolo explains how this works:
Don’t Unwittingly Revive the Time Period for a Lawsuit: If a debt collector contacts you about an old, time-barred debt, be very careful in what you say to the bill collector. If you say or sign anything that might be considered an acknowledgement of the validity of the debt (meaning, you agree that you owe that debt even if the statute of limitations to sue has expired), then you may have revived, waived, or extended the statute of limitations. Or, if you make an agreement with that bill collector to pay the old debt, then you also may revive, waive or extend the statute of limitations.
In some cases, a debt settlement can work for you. Just keep in mind—it’s often not as quick and painless as it seems. Know what you’re getting into before settling.
Try to Negotiate Your Settlement
In addition, it’s possible to negotiate your settlement amount. And if you’re interested in this option, there are a few strategies.
Credit expert John Ulzheimer suggests offering 10 to 15 percent of what you owe. Then, expect to settle in the neighborhood of 30 to 50 percent.
According to Bankrate, you can also suggest something called a payment for deletion. This isn’t illegal, but it’s often frowned upon, and many collection agencies may refuse.
The deal is: you pay, and they agree to call the credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax) to remove the debt history from your credit report.
Get Everything in Writing
Whether you’re paying off the debt or settling on it, get your agreement with the collector in writing. Do this before making any payments.
Make sure the agreement includes full details of your deal, including the amount, terms, and any interest.
You also want to make sure you can prove your payment history.
Credit.com suggests paying with a certified check from your bank so that you have a record of the payment without giving them details about your account.
What Happens When You Ignore a Debt Collector
Let’s say you don’t want to settle or deal with the debt collector altogether. You have the option of ignoring them, and any of the following can happen:
- They leave you alone (not terribly likely)
- You’ll take a credit hit: your debts will appear as “in collection”
- Your debt will grow: it’ll continue to accrue interest
- A different agency will contact you
- They sue you
It’s probably a better idea to deal with debt collectors head on. Because if they sue you, and they’re successful in court, their next step might be garnishing your wages.
Beware of Wage Garnishment
Yes, debt collectors can take money out of your paycheck, depending on the debt. But there are rules and there are limits, and those also depend on the type of debt you owe.
Again, with most debts, if you ignore debt collectors, they have to file a judgment against you with the court in order to garnish your paycheck. You have the option of contesting the judgment, trying to settle the debt, or declaring bankruptcy. If you ignore the judgment, they’re allowed to start taking money from your earnings.
If you owe money to the U.S. Department of Education for an unpaid student loan or the IRS for back taxes, they can garnish your paycheck without a judgment.
There are garnishment laws that limit the amount that can be taken from your paycheck. According to Alllaw.com, for judgments, creditors can’t garnish more than:
- 25% of your disposable income, or
- the amount that your income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.
The Department of Education can’t garnish more than 15% of your pay. State laws might be different, depending on where you live.
But they have to at least protect you as well as the federal guidelines do—meaning the amount creditors can garnish with a judgment can’t be more than 25.
If debt collectors start calling, the most responsible thing to do is probably come up with a plan to pay it off. But there are a handful of options available, and a handful of consequences, depending on how you choose to deal with your debt.
Either way, you should know what you’re getting into before making any big decisions.