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The Dos and Don’ts for Handling Debt Collection Calls

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Having a debt in collections is a story many Americans know well. Roughly one-third of U.S. consumers were contacted by a debt collector or creditor in the 12 months leading up to January 2017, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) report.

When an account is sent to collections, that means that the account has fallen behind on payments and has been turned over to a third-party debt collection company tasked with recovering the owed debt. It goes without saying that delinquent accounts can seriously drag down your credit score.

There isn’t an exact formula for how much a delinquent debt dampens your score. Martin Lynch, a certified credit counselor and director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling, said that it’s all relative to whatever else is on your credit report. Either way, you can expect an account in collections to stay on your credit report for seven years.

But if you have an account in collections, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We tapped credit experts to shed light on the best ways to tackle your situation and get your credit back to where it should be. And it all starts with picking up the phone when debt collectors call.

What not to do when debt collectors call

Avoid communication

Your intuition may tell you to duck and cover, but avoiding a debt collector could put you in financial and legal hot water. Debt collectors are nothing if not persistent. More than likely, they’ll continue reaching out to you. And those who feel ignored may escalate their efforts and file a lawsuit against you.

“Don’t put off the discussion you need to have with your creditor,” said Bruce McClary, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “If they need to reach you about a payment you’ve missed, answer the call, open the letter, open the email, read the text — and reach back to them if you don’t connect on their first attempt.”

In other words, lead with an honest and open conversation and take it from there. The best time to set things right and preserve your credit rating, according to McClary, is during the earliest stages of debt collection, when your account may still be open.

“At that point, you want to be limiting the possibility of further damage to your credit rating by letting the account continue to slide off the cliff,” he said. “The instinct to run and hide, while it may feel natural, is absolutely against your best interests.”

Don’t blindly agree to pay the balance

“You shouldn’t agree to make any kind of payment or even acknowledge the debt until you’ve confirmed that it’s yours and you know the date in which you made the last payment if you made any,” Lynch said.

There are statutes of limitations on debt that vary based on your state and the type of debt you have. All this means is that debt collectors only have a certain amount of time to file a lawsuit to recover payment. Three to six years is the norm. The problem is that making a payment revives the statute of limitations, Lynch said.

“That’s particularly dangerous if the debt is approaching or has already passed the statute of limitation,” he added.

First things first: Confirm the debt is actually yours. The CFPB recommends finding out who the original creditor is, what the debt is for when it was incurred and how much is owed (including interest and fees). You’ll also want to confirm the debt collector’s name, address, and phone number.

To protect yourself from scam artists, request that debt collectors contact you in writing. Until then, don’t dole out any financial or personal information. It may turn out that the collector doesn’t own that debt, or they’re looking for somebody else. (If it’s the latter, and that information has found its way onto your credit report, read this guide to learn how to dispute the error.)

The takeaway here is always to request validation of the debt from the get-go. Consulting an attorney is another easy way to clarify a particular debt’s statute of limitations.

Don’t record phone calls without the debt collector’s consent

There are laws in place to protect consumers from being harassed by debt collectors (more on this in a bit), so it may be tempting to record your conversations. There’s an app for everything these days, making it pretty easy to tap a button and have immediate proof of what was said — but tread carefully.

According to Lynch, you need to prove that you had their consent to do so. If it’s a phone call, it means getting their verbal consent while the tape is rolling. Otherwise, you could inadvertently find yourself guilty of wiretapping. In general, Lynch recommends keeping a record of all interactions. If, for instance, you want to request that a debt collector stop contacting you at work, put it in writing and send them a certified letter.

Thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), they’re legally obligated to back off. The gist of the law is that it keeps debt collection agencies from using “abusive, unfair or deceptive practices to collect debts from you,” according to the CFPB.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If debt collectors are stressing you out, take heart in knowing that you don’t have to go it alone. A credit counselor can help you understand your rights and work with creditors to repay the debt as affordably as possible.

“Nonprofit credit counseling can help you create a roadmap where you can get back on track with your budget and your payments to your creditors so you can pay off the debt in a way that’s far more affordable and gets you to a point where you are debt-free much faster,” said McClary.

Check out MagnifyMoney’s guide to finding the best credit counseling options for you.

What to do when debt collectors call

Be proactive

Even better than being responsive to debt collectors is being proactive.

“Reach out and be the first one to call,” McClary said. “Don’t let it get to the point where somebody has to call you. Make the first move, tell them what’s going on with your situation and that you might be missing a payment.”

A creditor’s internal billing department will always try to collect payment from you before assigning it out to a third-party debt collection company. If you’ve stumbled on hard times and anticipate having trouble making your regular payment, give them a heads up to see if they’re willing to work with you. The more proactive you are, according to McClary, the more likely they’ll accommodate your situation. For instance, they may be able to give you the option to miss a payment or to make an interest-only payment.

The idea is to stay on good terms with them and make a good-faith effort of transparency.

“Your negotiating position is far better when you’ve been a good customer up until this point,” he said. “If you have a payment history that’s on time and historically maintained as agreed, you’re in a better position to negotiate a way to avoid any further debt collection issues and come up with an amicable solution.”

Negotiate the terms of your debt

There’s almost always room for negotiation when dealing with debt collectors. According to Lynch, some debt collectors are paid on commission, so it’s in their best interest to get you to settle the account here and now. That’s not to say that establishing a payment plan is out of the question, just that you may be able to come out paying much less than you actually owe.

It’s all relative to the amount owed, Lynch said. If you owe $3,000 and they’re willing to settle it today for $1,000 — and your budget can swing it — that’s not a bad deal. If you simply don’t have it, see if they’ll meet you in the middle with a monthly payment plan.

“Don’t be afraid to say no if you’re negotiating a payment amount,” said Lynch. “If you can really only afford $75 a month, don’t agree to anything higher than that. If they’re threatening legal action, they may be just bluffing because what they really want is to get every dollar they can as quickly as they can, so stick to your budget.”

Know your rights

Again, consumers are protected by the FDCPA, which safeguards them against shady debt collectors. These laws apply to the collection of mortgages, credit cards, and medical debts, among others.

“If you’re being contacted by debt collectors, know what your rights are and what debt collectors are required to do by law,” said McClary.

For starters, they’re restricted in how they’re allowed to make contact. They cannot reach out to you prior to 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., and they have to stop contacting you at work if you request it. The laws are designed in a way that prevents harassment.

Be that as it may, one CFPB study found that 27% of consumers who were approached about debt felt threatened. What’s more, almost 40% said that debt collectors were attempting contact at least four times per week.

“They also are required to honor any request to be contacted at all, but I’d caution people because for your own benefit, you don’t want to cut off all communication with the creditor if it’s truly a debt that you owe,” added McClary.

Take control of your debt

It’s never too late to get your finances back on the right track, even if you’re at a point where you’re getting calls from debt collectors. The good news is that once you face the music and begin making good on your old debts, your credit could improve. When you strike a deal to pay off a collection account in full, Lynch said it has a positive effect on your FICO 9 credit score since it will no longer factor that account into your rating.

“There’s no set amount of points gained or lost for any of this,” he added. “It’s all relative to whatever else is in your report that month How much good information do you also have in that report?”

Far and away, the most important thing you can do for your credit health is to make on-time payments from here on out. Your payment history makes up a whopping 35% of your FICO score.

“The main thing to do is focus on keeping all your other financial obligations paid as agreed,” said McClary. “In order to rebuild your credit rating, it’s important to focus on the things that are going to get you the most traction. Making your payments on time is absolutely priority No. 1.”

In extreme situations where your credit score has been severely damaged by collection accounts, you might have to open new accounts to establish a healthy credit history. Your options may be limited as a lower credit score generally translates to higher interest rates and fees, but paying off your balances in full each month reduces the likelihood of getting in over your head. If you want to begin rebuilding your credit, a secured card may help, assuming you can handle it responsibly.

Having debts in collections isn’t the end of the road, so long as you know your rights and establish a financial plan for getting back on the right path. Put it another way: Rehabbing your finances (and credit score) is more than possible.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Sample Goodwill Letter to Remove a Late Student Loan Payment from Your Credit Report

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If you’ve pulled your credit report recently and discovered that there’s been a late payment reported on your student loans, you might be wondering what you can do to recover. Late payments can damage your credit, especially if you stop paying your loans for an extended period of time.

We’ve already gone over the repercussions of delinquency and default, but now let’s take a look at another method of repairing your credit report — sending a goodwill letter to your creditor.

What is a goodwill letter?

A “goodwill letter” is a simple way to repair your credit report, and it can be used for both federal and private loans. The purpose of a goodwill letter is to restore your credit to good standing by having a lender or servicer erase a lateness on your credit report.

Typically, those who have experienced financial hardship due to unexpected circumstances have the most success with goodwill letters. They allow you to ask if your student loan servicer can empathize with the situation that caused the lateness and erase it from your report.

It can also be used when you think the late payment is an error — for example, if you were in deferment or forbearance during the time of the late payment and weren’t required to make any payments, or if you know you’ve never been late on a payment before.

What makes a convincing goodwill letter?

If you’ve been looking for a goodwill letter that will work well, we have some tips on what you should include in your letter:

1. An appreciative tone

It’s important that the entire tone of your letter comes off as thankful and conscientious. If you were actually late on your payments due to extenuating circumstances, taking an angry tone probably won’t help your case.

2. Take responsibility

You want to be convincing and honest. Take responsibility for the late payment, and explain why it happened. They need to sympathize with you. Saying you just forgot isn’t going to win you any points.

3. A good recent payment history

Besides sympathy, you want to gain their trust that you will continue to make payments. If your lender sees payments being made on time before and after the period of financial hardship, it might be more willing to give you a break. When you have a pattern of late payments, on the other hand, it’s more difficult to convince them that you’re taking this seriously.

4. Proof of any errors and relevant documents

If you’re writing about a mistake that occurred, still be friendly in tone, but back up the errors with documentation. You’ll need proof that what you’re saying is true. Unfortunately, errors are often made on credit reports, and it may have been a clerical error on behalf of your servicer. If you have any written correspondence with them, you’ll want to include it.

5. Simple and to the point

The last thing to keep in mind is to craft a short and simple letter. Get straight to the point while telling your story. The people reviewing your letter don’t want to read an essay, and the easier you make their lives, the better.

Sample goodwill letter No. 1

Below is a sample goodwill letter for student loans to give you an idea of how to structure your own:

To whom It may concern:

Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this letter. I just pulled my credit report, and discovered that a late payment was reported on [date] for my account [loan account number].

During that time, my mother fell terminally ill, and I was the only one left to care for her. As such, I had to leave my job, and my savings went toward her health care expenses. I fell on very rough times after she passed away, and was unable to make my student loan payments.

I realize I made a mistake in falling behind, but up until that point, my payment history with you had been spotless. When I was able to gain employment once again, I quickly resumed paying my student loans, making them a priority.

I’m not proud of this black mark on my record, but it’s the only one I have, and I would be extremely grateful if you could honor this request to remove the lateness from my credit report. It would help me immensely in securing other lines of credit so that I can further improve my credit score.

If the lateness cannot be removed entirely, I would still be appreciative if you could make a goodwill adjustment.

Thank you.

Sample goodwill letter No. 2

If you’re writing a letter because the lateness on your credit report is inaccurate, then try something similar to this:

To whom it may concern:

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I recently pulled my credit report and found that [Loan servicer] reported a late payment regarding my account [loan account number].

I am requesting that this late payment be assessed for accuracy.

I believe this reporting is incorrect because [list the supporting facts you have]. I have included the documentation to prove that [I made payments during this time / that my loans were in forbearance/deferment and didn’t require any payments].

Please investigate this matter, and if it is found to be inaccurate, remove the lateness from my credit report.

Thank you.

Make sure you provide as many personal details as possible — without making the letter too long, of course. You should also include your name, address and phone number at the top of the letter in case your loan servicer needs to reach you immediately.

Where to send your goodwill letter

Now that your letter is written, it’s time to send it. This can be done either by fax or by mail. Most student loan servicers have their contact information on their website, but you can also look on your billing statements to see if they specify a different address.

Additionally, you can try calling the credit bureau where the lateness was reported to see if they can give you the contact information you need.

It’s important to mention that goodwill letters are not a means to immediate success. Unfortunately, it often takes several attempts to correspond with servicers and lenders to get them to acknowledge that they received a letter from you.

Your best bet is to get a personal contact at the company who has the power to erase the late payment from your credit report.

If all else fails, try as many different communication methods as possible. Phone, mail, fax, live chat (if your servicer offers it) and email them. Several people who have tried this report that it’s possible to wear your servicer down with a decent amount of requests.

Addresses and fax numbers to try

Here are some addresses and fax numbers for several of the larger servicers, as listed on their websites. Again, it may also be worth phoning your servicer to get the name of someone there that can help you. If you have federal student loans, you can also check this Federal Student Aid page for more contact information.

Nelnet

Documents related to deferment, forbearance, repayment plans or enrollment status changes:

Attn: Enrollment Processing

P.O. Box 82565

Lincoln, NE 68501-2565

Fax: 877-402-5816

Great Lakes

Great Lakes

P.O. Box 7860

Madison, WI 53707-7860

Fax: 800-375-5288

Sallie Mae

Sallie Mae

P.O. Box 3229

Wilmington DE 19804-0229

Fax: 855-756-0011

Navient

For anything other than federal loans, check here

Navient – U.S. Department of Education Loan Servicing

P.O. Box 9635

Wilkes-Barre, PA 18773-9635

Fax: 866-266-0178

Cornerstone

P.O. Box 145122

Salt Lake City, UT

84114-5122

Fax: 801-366-8400

FedLoan

For letters and correspondence

FedLoan Servicing

P.O. Box 69184

Harrisburg, PA 17106-9184

Fax: 717-720-1628

EdFinancial

For FFELP and private loans, check here

Edfinancial Services

P.O. Box 36008

Knoxville, TN 37930-6008

Fax: 800-887-6130

Documents to include with your goodwill letter

Don’t let your efforts go to waste by forgetting to send documentation with your letter. Here’s a quick checklist of what you should include:

  • The account number for your loan
  • Your name, address, phone number and email
  • Statements showing proof that you paid (if you’re disputing a late payment)
  • Documentation showing that you’ve paid on time at all other points aside from when you experienced financial hardship (if that’s the case)
  • Identifying documentation so your servicer knows you sent the request

Also note that if you’re mailing anything, you should send it by certified mail with a receipt requested. This way you’ll know whether your letter made it to the servicer.

What to expect after submitting your goodwill letter

Once you submit your goodwill letter, you should hear back from your creditor with a decision in a few weeks. If two to three weeks have passed without word, follow up via email or phone call.

As you know, there’s no guarantee that your goodwill letter will work. The decision to remove a negative mark from your credit report is entirely in the hands of your creditor.

If your creditor rejects your petition, you’ll have to accept the ding on your credit report and take other steps to boost your credit. But if they agree to repair your credit, you should see the delinquency removed from your report and your credit score increase as a result.

A higher credit score can make life a lot easier, whether you want to take out a loan, open a credit card or, in some cases, even rent an apartment. For student loan borrowers, a strong credit score also opens the door to student loan refinancing, a savvy strategy that lets you restructure your debt, possibly changing your monthly payment and potentially saving money on interest.

If your credit score rebounds and you want to take proactive steps to conquer your student debt, refinancing could be the answer you’ve been looking for, so long as you no longer need the protections that come with federal loans.

Either way, though, make sure to keep up with student loan payments so you don’t end up with a delinquent account dragging down your newly repaired credit score.

Resources

If you’re interested in exploring goodwill letters further — and the results that others have had — check out these websites:

  • Ed.gov: They cover disputes, what to do about them and how to go about rectifying them here.
  • ConsumerFinance.gov: If you have loans with a private lender, and your lender had reported you as late when you weren’t, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to see if they can help you.
  • myFico Forums: The forums on myFico are populated with helpful individuals that might be able to give you contact information for certain servicers. There are some people reporting success with goodwill letters, and they may be willing to share their letters with others upon request.

It’s worth the time to write a goodwill letter

If you’ve discovered that a late payment has been reported on your credit, and it’s because you fell on hard times or is inaccurate, it’s worth trying to get it erased. These dings on your credit are there to stay for seven to 10 years. That’s a long time, especially if you’re young and hoping to buy a house or a car in the near future. It’s a battle worth fighting.

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Pay Down My Debt

Debt, Its Emotional Toll and How to Tackle It

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Debt can feel overwhelming, and studies are increasingly showing that it can lead to a decrease in happiness and life satisfaction, anxiety and even physical symptoms like headaches or loss of sleep.

A study of more than 1,000 student loan borrowers — conducted by Student Loan Hero, which, like MagnifyMoney, is owned by LendingTree — found that:

  • More than 61% of respondents admitted that they’re afraid that their student loan debt worries are spiraling out of their control.
  • More than 70% said they suffer from headaches because of their debt concerns.
  • Some 64.5% of respondents have lost sleep over their debt.
  • 67% reported physical symptoms of anxiety that stemmed from the stress of their student loans.

The study showed a direct correlation between having debt and detracting from happiness. In fact, results revealed that carrying student loan debt is nearly as significant as income when it comes down to predicting financial concern and evaluating life satisfaction.

What studies show about how debt affects your health

Indeed, money can buy happiness, but how much debt one has also weighs heavily into the equation, according to a study from Purdue University. An online college alumni sample of 2,781 individuals from the United States revealed that student debt could take a significant toll on one’s life satisfaction over the long term.

Another survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) showed that 56% of Americans with debt admitted that it negatively impacted their lives. Twenty-eight percent of the 1,004 American adults surveyed said their debt caused stress about their everyday financial decisions, and 21% said it caused tension with their partner.

It may be that such accomplishments as a promotion at work may be marred by knowing your debt is eating up your higher earnings. High debt may also be such a financial burden that borrowers are unable to save for retirement, for emergencies or even such pleasures as a vacation.

High-rate debt can be particularly difficult to carry. Seeing your monthly payments largely going toward fees can make you feel as though you’ll be trapped in debt forever. And if that debt isn’t allowing you to save money, your stress may only grow if you’re suddenly struck with a financial emergency that causes you to take on new debt.

6 tips to dealing with your debt

If you’re dealing with debt and it’s taking a toll on your health, what can you do?

“The first thing a person needs to do is take a close look at how they got into debt in the first place,” advised Carolyn McClanahan, M.D., CFP, who began her career as a physician and is now founder of a financial planning group called Life Planning Partners LLC, based in Jacksonville, Fla. “They should identify what triggered the situation or any bad habits that might have led to their debt, so that they don’t repeat those things going forward. Then, they need to make an actionable plan to figure out how to get out of debt.”

Consider these tips that could help you better handle your debt.

1. Thoroughly research your options

When tackling your debt, it pays off to research your options for dealing with debt. For example, federal student loans come with borrower protections that may help you if you’re struggling with money. You may be eligible for an income-driven repayment plan, which would adjust your monthly payments based on your income. You may also qualify for student loan forgiveness or have the opportunity to defer payments for a period of time.

If you have a mortgage, you could extend your repayment term without refinancing. This is known as mortgage recasting. By extending your repayment term, you could lower your monthly payments, freeing up cash to deal with debts that are a higher priority.

Credit card debt doesn’t have to be such a burden, either. If you lost your job, it may be beneficial to call up your credit card issuer. You may be able to get on a hardship program that reduces your payments for a time. Or, if you have decent credit, you may qualify for a balance transfer credit card with a promotional 0% APR. For a fee, you could move your credit card debt onto your new card to avoid interest charges for a period of time. Pay off that debt before the promotional period ends and you could save a lot of money on interest.

2. Don’t be afraid to negotiate

Many people fail to recognize that there are many instances where you can negotiate and in turn, lower your debt. Take medical bills, for example.

“It can really help to negotiate with the medical provider,” said McClanahan. “If you’re willing to pay them real money over time, you can end up paying pennies on the dollar of what you own,” she said. In addition to negotiating, McClanahan suggested asking hospitals or health centers whether they have any financial assistance programs that you might qualify for.

Furthermore, if you’re accepting a new job offer, don’t be afraid to negotiate a higher starting salary, which in turn could help you windle your way out of debt faster. Research the job market and consider making a compelling case as to why you deserve a higher salary.

3. Take it one debt at a time

If your debt is stretched across multiple credit cards or loans, you may be overwhelmed just by the thought of them. But if you can focus your attention on making extra payments on just one debt, it could help you see some quick wins.

“You ideally want to start by paying off the debt with the highest interest rates first,” McClanahan said. Repaying the debt with the highest rate helps you reduce how much interest you pay over time. Often, this means you’ll focus extra payments toward a credit card balance. Once that debt is paid off, you start making extra payments on your debt with the next-highest rate.

However, you may instead choose to pay off your debt with the lowest balance. This would result in a fast win that will motivate you to keep making extra payments on your debt.

4. Consider therapy

Seek the help of a psychologist or another mental health expert if your concerns about debt are negatively impacting your day-to-day life. A licensed health expert can help you confront your anxieties head on and offer strategies for dealing with them effectively. Also, reach out to your personal network and let those close to you know that you could use their support. It helps to know that you’re not in it alone.

Low-income individuals may want to seek the help of a sliding scale therapist, who will adjust their fees to make therapy more affordable. This can be found on mental health directories like GoodTherapy.org. There are also clinics that provide low-fee or free mental health services. To find a clinic near you, visit MentalHealth.gov.

5. Enlist the help of a credit counselor or financial planner

Sometimes, it helps to get an outside perspective on your debt, or at least talk to someone who can reveal your options. A credit counselor or financial planner can help you take steps toward getting your finances in order or develop a game plan for getting back on track, McClanahan said.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a nonprofit financial counseling organization that provides a variety of free services, including counseling on credit and debt, bankruptcy and student loans. If you’re interested in hiring a financial planner, you could use the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors to find one.

Outside help could help you better weigh the pros and cons of your options and guide you as you work on your debt.

6. Focus on improving your credit score

Take steps to rebuild your credit and improve your credit score, which in turn, could give you access to more credit in the future. For starters, focus on implementing a plan for paying off debt, and work to keep your balances low on credit cards. Keep in mind that improving your credit score requires small, responsible actions over time, so be patient and set long-term objectives. For more tips on how to improve your FICO score, take a look here.

Indeed, accumulating debt can certainly take an emotional toll and negatively impact your overall life satisfaction. However, you can take simple steps to pay down debt and turn your financial situation around. No financial situation is permanent, and with some patience, persistence and implementing of best practices, you can find yourself back on the path to financial recovery. So take a deep breath, keep your emotions at bay and work on tackling your debt in a practical manner.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Renee Morad
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