Your phone rings — and rings, and rings some more. You know who’s calling. You know what the caller wants, too, but you can’t afford to give the money you owe on your credit cards. So, you let the debt collector leave a voicemail you have no intention of returning.
That’s the wrong way to deal with delinquent credit card debt, says Michaela Harper, debt counselor and director of the Community Education for Credit Advisors Foundation in Omaha, Neb.
“Don't be afraid to talk to your creditor,” says Harper. “Avoiding them makes the problem worse because it sends it onto the next division” and brings your debt closer to being charged-off, which Harper says consumers with past-due debt should do their best to avoid. (More on that later.)
Credit card debts — or most debts for that matter — become delinquent the moment you miss a first payment. The events that follow the missed payment depend on how long the past-due debt goes unpaid. It begins with friendly reminder calls from the bank to pay your credit card bill, and can culminate in losing up to 25 percent of your annual income to wage garnishment.
The portion of consumers missing credit card payments has been on the rise since the lowest levels of delinquent credit card debt ever recorded were reached two years ago. About 2.47 percent of credit card loans made by commercial banks were delinquent in the second quarter of 2017, according to Aug. 23 figures from the Federal Reserve Economic Database.
Below is a timeline chronicling what happens when you miss a credit card payment, as well as tips from debt management experts on what you can do to mitigate the situation at each point. (You can jump to a specific time period by clicking on the milestones below.)
Zero to 30 days past due: Missed a payment
After you miss your first payment, your debt is delinquent and the clock starts ticking. Your bank should begin to contact you to remind you to make a payment. You are also likely to incur a late fee.
The first 30 days will sound more like courtesy calls, says Randy Williams, president and CEO of A Debt Coach. In reality, the bank is trying to verify your address and personal information to update the system in case your debt becomes more delinquent. (Williams used to work as a bill collector before switching over to debt consulting.)
What you can do
At this point, the bank’s agents may be more willing to provide customer service, so you can ask for an extension or create a payment arrangement to address the past-due debt before the missed payment begins to impact your credit report, which can be as early as 30 days past due. You may also try your luck at asking if the bank could waive any late fees already incurred, although the creditor is not obligated to extend this courtesy.
There’s only so much leeway a bank will give you, says Gordon Oliver, a certified debt management professional at Cambridge Credit Counseling. If you’ve asked for a late payment or interest charge to be waived in the past, you won’t have much leverage.
“There will be different reasons why a creditor may not extend those benefits at the time, but usually those terms are for borrowers who are in better standing,” Oliver adds.
30 to 90 days past due: Collection calls begin
Over the 30- to 60-day delinquency period, the bank will attempt to reach you to collect the past-due amount on your credit card bill.
“This is when they are trying to figure out what's wrong. They are trying to collect the money,” says Williams.
“At this point it's starting to affect your credit,” says Williams. He says the robo-collection calls may come as often as every 15 minutes. Borrowers with higher credit scores are likely to see a bigger drop than borrowers with lower scores. According to FICO data, for example, a 30-day late payment could bring a 680 credit score down 10 to 30 points and a 780 score down 25 to 45 points.
In addition to seeing your credit score drop, you will be charged late fees on the past-due account. After you have owed debt for two payment cycles, the CARD Act allows creditors to flag you in their system as a “high-risk” borrower, which means the interest you currently pay will rise to whatever the bank charges for customers at a high-risk status. That number varies from bank to bank but in some cases can get as high as 29.99 percent. The rate will stay that high at least until you have made six consecutive on-time payments, at which point the bank is required by law to reset the rate.
However, “the law doesn’t say they have to do it on their own,” says Harper. So, you will likely need to request a reset. You can find the APR charged to high-risk borrowers in your credit card terms.
What you can do
Harper says if you respond at this point, the bank may ask you to negotiate a payment arrangement.
“Never make a promise to pay that you can’t keep just to get someone off the phone,” says Harper. “If you are silent, you agree to the payment.”
Missing promised payments also gives the bank more leverage if the bill eventually goes to court, says Harper. “If they walk into court and they can point to all of the promised payments, it undermines your credibility.”
Harper advises debtors to be very clear if they cannot meet the bank’s proposed payment arrangements. You need to specifically tell them you cannot make the payments. If possible, take a look at your budget. If you find you are able to send them a small amount every month, tell them.
“That’s a valuable thing because it goes back to when the account charges off. You can slow down your progression toward charge-off by making the partial payments,” says Harper.
A charge-off happens when a creditor believes there is no chance of collecting your past-due debt, so the debt’s considered a loss. The debt gets written off the creditor’s financial statements as a bad debt and sold or transferred to a third-party collection agency or a debt buyer.
“If they feel like it's a tough situation [you] are going through they will refer [you] to a credit counselor” around the 60- to 90-day mark, says Williams. Again, that benefit may not be extended to all consumers facing financial hardship.
90 to 120 days past due: Bank requests balance in full
After your bill is 90 days overdue, the bank will turn collection over to its internal recovery department to engage in more aggressive collection attempts. Williams says the bank will now be calling for the balance in full, not only the past-due amount.
The bank’s collectors will continue to call, but they may also send you multiple letters every day, or may attempt to reach you via social media, emails or emergency contacts.
Harper says the account may stay with the bank’s internal collections for another 90 days (180 days past due), but it’s important to note that at the 120-day past-due mark, your debt is at risk of getting charged off and being sold to a third-party collection agency.
That’s because the CARD Act states the past-due amount needs to be the equivalent of six months’ worth of your credit card’s minimum payment in order for the debt to be charged off. Including late fees and the amount added in higher interest payments, consumers may reach that figure in as little as four calendar months.
What you can do
If you can’t give them the entire past-due amount or balance in full, take a serious look at your budget. See if there is any room to make even a small payment. If you can find a few dollars, you may be able to enter a repayment plan with the bank, which will at least pause the collection calls. Don’t forget to leverage the collector’s insider knowledge. Explain your situation and ask if you can negotiate a solution with the bank.
“You want to pay off the debt, they want to pay off the debt. They may have solutions they can offer you that you don't know about,” says Harper.
Once you’ve got an active repayment plan in place, the bank will pull you out of the collection list, Harper says.
120 to 150 days past due: Hardcore collection attempts
Watch your credit report carefully after your account becomes 120 days past due, as it may be charged off at any point. At this point, the collectors will continue to try every channel available to them to get in touch with you and collect on the debt. The attempts may get closer together and collectors may try more aggressive tactics to scare you into paying up.
“One hundred and twenty to 150 days, it is hardcore. Now they are going to offer you a settlement. They will do whatever they want to try and get to you to pay the debt off. It's basically motivation to get you to pay now,” says Williams.
Debt collectors at this point may also take time to remind you of your rights under the CARD Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as well as their right to collect on the past-due debt.
The bank’s collectors may not directly say they will proceed with legal action or wage garnishment if they do not intend to, as that is illegal under the FDCPA, but they may remind you of those possibilities if you do not pay and emphasize the bank's right to collect on the debt owed to them, Williams says.
Williams adds, “They never say they are going to sue you; they say, ‘We have the right to protect our asset.’”
What you can do
Williams says at this point the debtor essentially has three options. Bring the account current by paying the entire past-due amount, arrange a debt settlement plan with the bank or try going to a credit counselor to create a debt consolidation plan.
“Near 120 days past due, they need to get some form of help to remedy the account before it goes to a charge off,” says Oliver, who adds that the timing the charge off will be difficult to predict.
For those who may be behind on several bills, Oliver also recommends getting some form of financial counseling to create a plan that addresses all your financial issues.
150 to 180 days past due: Last chance
At 150 days, collections efforts will remain aggressive and may even increase in frequency as the bank is now concerned about losing the debt to a charge-off.
Once your credit card payment is 150 days past due, you may start to hear the bank’s agents’ tactics shift as they may make a last-ditch effort to recover the debt, according to Williams.
What you can do
You will still have the options to pay the balance in full or reach a settlement with the bank, but you may have an additional option: Re-age your debt.
When your account is past due and you enter a re-age program, the late payments and collection activity are removed from your account. As a result, “your credit score may improve by 10 to 15 points if not growing every month from there,” according to Williams.
You will generally be asked to make at least three on-time payments on the debt before your account is re-aged. For example, the bank could ask you to pay $100 each month for three months before bringing your account back up to a current standing, but the bank will add the interest and fees you’ve already incurred to the total amount you owe. After the account is re-aged, you’ll go back to making minimum payments on the total amount of debt outstanding. Re-aging the account may also remove the “high-risk” stain from the account so your interest rate drops to to whatever it was before.
Williams says a re-age can be seen as a win-win for both parties: You are able to catch up on your delinquent debt and — in some cases — have its impact removed from your credit report, and the bank is able to recover the interest and fees that have accumulated since your account became delinquent.
Of course, the credit card company doesn’t have to allow you to re-age the debt and may not offer the option to you, but there is a possibility it will do so if you ask. Keep in mind you are only allowed to re-age an account once in 12 months and twice within five years, per federal policy, and re-aging is only an option on accounts that have been open for nine months or longer. Credit card issuers are allowed to set more strict re-aging rules for its accounts, as well.
After 180 days: Charged off to a third party
When you are about six months past due, it is extremely likely the bank will charge off your account and sell the debt to a third-party collection agency. If the bank does not charge off your account, it may take the matter to court.
If it goes to collection, third-party debt collectors may employ some of the same tactics the bank’s collectors did. Most collection agencies will push hard for the first 90 days, then at the end of that point in time they may decide to sue you, Harper says. Or they may sell your debt to another collections agency.
The third-party collectors will attempt to contact you using every channel available to them for the next 90 days or so, before they must decide to either charge off the debt or sue you. The collectors will likely demand you pay the full balance or ask you pay the balance in thirds, says Harper. If they can’t get a hold of you or get you to arrange a payment plan in that time, they may decide to turn it over to an attorney.
What you can do
You should try the same tactics that you would have used with the bank’s internal collections agency with the third-party agency, negotiating the price down and reaching a settlement with the third-party collector. If you don’t respond to the collection requests, you may be sued.
You may not be sued for some time. Companies can only sue you for unpaid debts within a certain period of time, called a statute of limitations — anywhere within three to 10 years, according to your state’s law. Your debt may be sold and resold several times before that happens. Check with the office of consumer protection at your state’s attorney general to find out what the rules are in your state.
If you are served with a lawsuit, you should check the letterhead to make sure the attorney or company filing the suit on behalf of the collections agency is licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction, says Harper, as you cannot legally be sued for credit card debt by an attorney outside your jurisdiction.
You should also be sure to respond to the lawsuit. If you don’t, you'll likely lose. The court can automatically side with the lender if you don’t show up in court, also known as a default judgment. That may result in getting your wages or federal benefits garnished to pay the debt, not to mention the credit damage a judgment causes. Federal law states a creditor can garnish no more than 25 percent of your disposable income, or the amount that your income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.
If you can’t afford to settle
If, given your current financial situation, the debt is unmanageable for you and you are not able to settle the account, you may want to consider bankruptcy. But you will have to file before a judgment is entered against you in court, which may be tricky to time, Harper says.
Given the difficulty in timing when the creditor will take your account to suit, you shouldn’t wait if you think bankruptcy is an option for you. Read here for more information on how and when to file for bankruptcy.
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