How to Deal With Collection Agencies
As anyone who has been through collections will tell you, the collection agencies tend to lie and to cheat in order to manipulate the collections process to their advantage. So how do you regain your power as a consumer from the collection agencies? By following these nine suggestions, you can stop screening your phone calls and turn the collections process to your advantage. (See also: Always Answer the Call: Expert Advice on Debt Collection)
1. Know your rights.
A common complaint is that collection agencies do not play by the rules. They make harassing telephone calls and threaten to kill your dog. Why are they allowed to do this? Because we let them! Most consumers do not know their rights, so we leave it to the collection industry to police itself.
So what is the best way to make that collections agent behave and stop threatening to kill your dog? Know your rights! Read, learn, and memorize the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. (If you don't want to read through the legalese, our very own Linsey Knerl wrote a spot-on article highlighting the finer points of the FDCPA.)
Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a collection agent than a consumer saying, "According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you are not allowed to call me more than one time per day and no more than three times per week. If you call again, I will report you to the FTC and the Attorney General's Office." The very fact that you are demonstrating knowledge of your rights will make them behave quicker than a stern look from their mother.
2. Know your debt.
Every consumer is entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the 3 credit reporting agencies. By requesting your credit report, you will have a fairly good idea of how much you owe and to whom.
One lesser-known fact about your credit report is that items generally disappear from your report after 7 years from the date of last activity. If you have an item that is getting ready to fall off your credit report, do not take any action on that account! You will restart the entire 7-year time limit. If a collection agent calls you about a bill from 6.5 years ago, do not confirm this debt. Confirming a debt will restart the 7-year limit. Ask them to send you any paperwork that they have on this bill. Procrastinate taking action on this bill for another 6 months, and the debt will fall off your credit report. In most states, you are not under any legal obligation to pay a debt that has not had any action for more than 7 years.
This advice does not apply if you are planning to purchase a home. Mortgage lenders will see all of your debt — no matter how old it is. If you want to buy a house, you will need to pay down most of your debt.
3. Keep a written record of every call.
When a creditor or collection agent calls you, ask the caller for their full name, the name of their company, and their employee identification number. Every employee will have some type of identification number, so do not let them tell you otherwise. Gathering this information, along with the date, time, and reason for the call, will assist you in filing any necessary complaints with the FTC and AG's office.
If you are being hounded or harassed by creditors and/or collection agents, consider buying a recorder for your phone. A recorder will further assist you in filing any complaints against a specific person or company. Just remember to tell the caller that the call is being recorded.
In my experience, collectors will behave if you start the phone call by politely asking for their employee identification information and telling them that the call is being recorded. Once again, these actions tell the agent that they are dealing with an informed consumer who will not hesitate to report them to the FTC or AG's office.
4. Attitude is key.
When a collection agency calls you, they are expecting to reach a very rude and aggressive consumer. Imagine what a loop you will throw them for if you are calm, polite, and cooperative!
As difficult as it may sound, maintaining your composure allows you to have the upper hand when dealing with collection agents. As I stated earlier, the collections process is a game. The more composure you have, the more power you earn. This will translate into being able to set your own terms with the collection agent.
5. Keep your creditors informed.
The moment you know you will not be able to make a scheduled payment, call your creditor or collection agency. Usually, they will work out another payment option for you, or they might waive your scheduled payment. Creditors and collection agencies are less likely to work with you if they have to hunt you down. So, take the initiative to call them. Explain your situation and ask how they can help you.
Additionally, if you move, it is your responsibility to inform your creditors or collectors of your new address. If a creditor or collector cannot find you but can show they made a good faith effort to contact you, they can pursue legal proceedings without your direct knowledge. The next time you go to apply for a job or for credit, you might be surprised to learn that your wages are being garnished or that you have legal action listed on your credit report.
6. Get everything in WRITING!
Let's say your great attitude and cooperation has gotten the collection agency to agree to accept your suggested monthly payments. Do not send any money until you have this agreement in writing! Collection agencies are infamous for reneging on verbal "agreements".
If you pay a debt in full or work out a settlement offer with the creditor or collection agency, make sure to get these actions documented in writing.
7. Stick to your guns.
Never agree to a payment plan you know you cannot afford. If you know that you can afford to send the creditor $10 per month, tell them that. They will try to pressure you into paying more than you can afford. They will tell you to borrow from grandma, your church, or your kid's piggy bank. Do not allow them to tell you how much you can afford!
8. Never refuse to pay.
In the course of politely explaining to your creditors that you cannot afford their suggested payment of $250 per month, they will ask, "So, are you refusing to pay your bill?" No matter how angry you are, do not fall for this trap. They are trying to provoke you and have you on record as saying that you will not pay your bills. This will be used against you in court. Instead, calmly say, "I did not say that. I said I can only pay $X per month." If you continue to restate that you can only pay a certain amount per month, the collector will usually get so angry that they will hang up on you, or they will accept your offer.
9. Never give a collection agency access to your bank account.
Creditors and collection agencies have been known to take more than the authorized amount out of people's bank accounts. By providing them with your bank account information or by paying with a personal check, you are enabling this practice. Send payments by money order or Western Union. Not only will you protect your bank account information, but you will have another record of payment for your files.