If you have any outstanding debts, your lender or creditor might have sold them to a collection agency. Although you owe money to your local hospital, suddenly you start getting hounded by a company whose name you don’t even recognize. This third party’s sole responsibility is to make you pay any funds you owe. They may start contacting you repeatedly until your debt is paid off, which translates to a lot of obnoxious phone calls, emails and letters. What should you do?
Know Your Rights
Before you decide how to proceed, it’s important to know what debt collectors can and cannot legally do. In the US, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects you from certain types of harassment. Legally, debt collectors can:
- Call, text, email or directly message you any time between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., unless you’ve asked them not to contact you at work
- Sue you for payment
- Talk to your family members to find out how to contact you
- Charge interest, but not on top of the interest you’re already paying
- Try to make you pay old debts that are past the statute of limitations, which is the time period during which a debt can be collected. This time period varies by state.
However, debt collectors cannot:
- Lie or threaten to harm you
- Keep contacting you if you sent them a formal letter asking them to stop
- Use inappropriate language
- Garnish your wages — meaning withdraw money directly from your bank account — without taking you to court, unless you owe an IRS or student loan debt
- Repeatedly tell other people about your debt
- Tag you on a public social media account
How to Handle Debt Collectors
Now that you have a better understanding of your rights under the FDCPA, it’s time to take action. Make no mistake: You will have to pay off your debt eventually. But here are some tips for navigating the process.
1. Pay Your Essential Bills First
Your debt may be as little as a few dollars, but if you can’t afford it after paying for food, gas, rent and utilities, then don’t pay off your debt yet. It’s not worth it to go without heat or water.
2. Request a Validation Letter
Ask the debt collection company for a formal, written statement that details how much you owe and when you owe it. The validation letter should also include information about the collection agency. Now you know exactly what you’re up against.
3. Gather Your Records
Keep every record of payment, including emails and statements with confirmation numbers, that proves what you’ve already paid to the original creditor and collection agency.
4. Start Paying Your Debt
At some point, you have to bite the bullet and start paying back what you owe. But be wary about giving your bank account info, including your credit card number, to the collection agency. They may charge hard-to-dispute “fees” for collecting your debt. Instead, pay by money order or cashier’s check.
Some debt collectors will give you a discount if you play your cards right. First, thank the debt collector by name for getting in touch with you — even if you’re upset — and tell them you really want to pay. Ask them if they offer any discounts, and inform them that you’d be able to pay off the debt in full if they could only reduce it.
This usually doesn’t work if you set up a payment plan. But in the US, almost all medical billing companies will reduce your bill if you ask politely and explain that you’re ready to pay it off, because they want to get rid of the debt too. This is one way to improve your credit score immediately.
6. Set Up a Payment Plan
If you can’t pay the debt in full, ask if you can pay it off in smaller installments. It’s worth a shot — most collection agencies are happy to receive even small amounts of money.
Negotiating Debt Collection
Being in debt isn’t fun, but try not to stress too much about it. You’re not the only one with unpaid bills, and the caller from the collection agency doesn’t dislike you personally — they’re only trying to pay their own bills. Eventually, you’ll get the debt paid off and restore your credit score to its former glory.