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Consumer Watchdog: 7 Things You Need to Know If You Have Debt in Collections

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Dealing with a debt collection agency can be painful. The phone never stops ringing, and they won’t stop asking for money. Agencies have a reputation for pushing the boundaries of the law, using aggressive (and sometimes illegal) tactics, and bending the law to pressure people into making payments.

In fact, at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (a government agency that gathers financial services complaints), collection agencies are the fastest growing complaint category. And the main reason people complain: they don’t recognize the debt that is being collected. That complaint is often valid. There is no central registrar of debt, and sometimes the only “proof” that a collection agency has of your debt is that your name is on a spreadsheet. The debt collection market has a high risk of fraud, abuse and simple human error.

In this post, we wanted to make it clear:

  • How a debt can end up with a collection agency
  • The impact of a debt collection item on your credit score
  • Seven things you need to know about a collection agency, and your rights

Why are they calling me?

A collection agency will take control of your account when: they buy the debt, or they are hired by the bank/entity who owns the debt to collect on their behalf.

Banks and credit card companies usually make the collection calls themselves during the first 180 days. However, after 180 days of collection activity, the bank “writes off” the debt. At this point, most major banks will hire a collection agency to collect the debt. And after a few more months, the banks will typically sell the debt to a collection agency. When banks sells the debt, they wipes their hands of the relationship.

The business model of an agency is to collect more from you than they pay for the debt. So, if they pay one cent for every $100 of debt, they will want to collect two cents. That is why they are begging, prodding and pushing for any payment, however small.

Another common type of debt to end up with a collection agency is medical debt. Your doctor or hospital decides when they hand the debt over to the collection agency, but it is usually around 60 days without payment. There are a lot of horror stories here, given the complexities of our medical system. Over 60 million people have medical collection items.

But any debt can ultimately end up with a collection agency. If you owe money to your phone company, utility company, or anyone else – that debt can end up with an agency.

And, when debt is with a collection agency, a “collection account” will appear on your bureau. This will have an impact on your score.

Impact on your credit bureau

A collection item has a big impact on your credit bureau. The higher your score, the more points your score can drop. For example, if you have a 770 credit score, you could see your score drop 40 to 70 points from a single collection item.

A collection items stays on your credit report for seven years. Even if you pay the collection item, it doesn’t disappear.

Fortunately, this is changing with FICO 9. If you pay off a collection item, the item will no longer be included in your FICO score. However, it will be awhile before banks start using FICO 9.

In the current model, the only way for a collection item to disappear is to wait seven years from the date it is first reported. So, that means seven years from the date that you become 180 days past due.

The only way to have a collection item removed is for the collection agency to remove the debt. You can ask an agency for a “pay for delete” deal. This means that you agree an amount to pay, and then the agency will remove the collection item from your account. Some collection agencies will offer this (even though they technically are not supposed to do so). The closer you are to seven years, the more likely they are to deal with the debt. You can also dispute the item with the credit bureaus (online). If the debt collection agency does not respond with proof of the debt in 30 days, then the item would be removed. Here are the links to dispute:

7 Things to Know

  1. If you don’t think the debt is yours, then take action right away. Within 30 days of the first collection activity, write a letter (certified, copied, with proof of delivery) to the collection agency. Tell them that you do not owe the debt and they must cease and desist all collection activity. Collection activity must stop until the agency provides concrete proof that you owe the debt.
  2. If you don’t think the debt is yours, and the collection agency provides proof that you don’t agree with, then complain to the CFPB. The more documentation you have, the better.
  3. Dispute the items with the credit bureaus. You can dispute the items online at Transunion, Equifax and Experian. It is fast and easy to make a dispute. The burden of proof is now with the collection agency, and they often will just decline to provide further information. If they don’t provide proof within 30 days, the information disappears from your bureau.
  4. The item disappears from your credit report seven years after it is with a collection agency. That usually means seven years after you become 180 days past due. This is not the same as the date you opened your account. Sometimes the best option is to just wait for the item to disappear.
  5. Be careful when you communicate with the agencies. There is a statute of limitations, which varies by state. After the statute of limitation expires, you are protected from further legal action (wage garnishment, etc.). In some states, admitting that the debt is yours on the phone is enough to reset the statute.
  6. Just because you are outside of the statute of limitations doesn’t mean that the collection agency won’t try to sue you. And, if they do, make sure you defend yourself in court. It will be easy: you just reaffirm the statute of limitations. But, if you don’t defend yourself, you could end up with wage garnishment or a new judgment. In addition, complain to the FTC, because it is against the law for a collector to sue you or threaten to sue you on a time-barred debt.
  7. When all else fails, use this line with the collection agency: “I do not recognize this debt. I have provided a written request for you to cease and desist all collection activity. In addition, I have complained to the CFPB. After this conversation is complete, I will reach out to the CFPB to update my complaint with this conversation. Given that you have not provided adequate proof that I owe this debt obligation, I believe you have further incriminated yourself by making this phone call. I will also provide a written complaint to the FTC, as I believe you are violating the FDCPA. At this point, I am going to terminate the conversation, and I hope that you will respect the law and promptly cease and desist from all collection activities, and ensure that negative information is removed from all 3 credit bureau. Goodbye.”

If you have questions or feel you are being unjustly harassed by a collections agency, then reach out via TwitterFacebook, email info@magnifymoney.com or in the comment section below!

Nick Clements
Nick Clements |

Nick Clements is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Nick at nick@magnifymoney.com

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