A 2019 report found that millions of Americans did not have enough money to survive missing even one paycheck. Well, it’s 2020 now, and we’re in the middle of an international pandemic. A pandemic that has caused millions of Americans to miss that one paycheck, and more. So, it’s no surprise that people are falling behind on their bills, and that some people have received calls from a collection agent.
If you are receiving calls from a collection agency, the most important things to know are that you should not panic and you should not ignore the call. Although the call or letter might be embarrassing, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it. Ignoring the call means losing control of what happens. You could easily end up in a far worse situation than if you work to solve the problem. If a collection agent has a legitimate reason to believe that you owe the money, they can contact you repeatedly, report you to credit bureaus, and even refer your file to an attorney or start litigation. If you go to court, the amount you end up paying could be a lot more than what you could have negotiated.
If you know you have any unpaid debt, familiarize yourself with the Federal Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA). This a federal law that restricts the behavior of collection agencies when they are attempting to collect money from individuals.
The law (a full copy of FDCPA can be found here) restricts the ways that collection agencies can contact you. Included in the law are restrictions on the times of day and the number of times a collection agency can contact you, what they can say, and how you can get them to stop contacting you. The law does not apply to collecting from businesses. The law also does not apply to collections performed by the entity that issued the bill you have not paid. So, if you have medical debt, the hospital can contact you in different ways than if they turn your account over to a collection agency.
When You Get a Phone Call
If you receive a phone call (or return a phone message), get the following information for your notes:
- Who is contacting you:
Name of the collection agency, their address, phone number, email address, case or file number, and the name of the person who has been assigned to your case.
- Full description of the debt:
Name of the company that claims you owe them, the amount owed, the date the debt was allegedly incurred, the product or service allegedly provided, and any interest or fees that have been added to the original amount owed.
- A paper copy of the information:
Once you have this information, ask them to mail (or email) you a full description of the alleged debt (often called a “validation letter” or “debt verification letter”) and to not contact you by phone until you have received it.
The Paper Trail
The main point is that you want to get all the information in writing about the debt before you make any decision as to how you might want to resolve the matter. We regularly hear from people saying they received a call or email from us about a debt. We know we never made these calls because we don’t collect from individuals (we only collect business-to-business claims). But scammers are out there. Scammers use our name and tell people they owe money for non-existent bills. That’s why getting a collection agent to provide information in writing is so important. You may even want to call them back to confirm the collection agency is legitimate if you don’t recognize the debt.
You also need a paper trail. Whether in hard copy or email, a paper trail helps you follow up as necessary and have something in writing at the end saying the matter has been resolved. If you don’t have this, someone else could come after you for the same debt and you might not be able to prove you have already paid it.
What to Do If You Can’t Pay
If this is your only debt and you can arrange for a payment plan, you should do so. It is the quickest way out of the situation. Remember, potentially everything is negotiable, including:
• how much time you have to solve the problem,
• whether or not you pay interest or fees,
• the total amount you owe.
If they agree to a reduced amount, or a payment plan, make sure you get it in writing on letterhead. Keep track of your payments, so that you have a paper trail.
However, if you owe many debts that you cannot pay, even if they have not all reached the point of going to a collection agency or attorney, it may be time for you to seek credit counseling and debt relief. Just paying one creditor does not solve your problem. If you use all your available money to solve only one debt, you will have nothing left to work with for your other obligations. Instead, find a true professional who can help you navigate the situation and come up with a comprehensive plan.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®) is a nonprofit agency dedicated to improving people’s financial well-being. The NFCC will refer you to counselors in your area. The counselors can provide financial reviews and help you determine a plan for dealing with your debt. The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of credit counseling agencies approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. Once you’ve compiled a list of potential counseling services you should check each one out with your state Attorney General. Your local consumer protection agency can also help. These government organizations can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about any one of them. Keep in mind though that a lack of complaints does not guarantee that the service is legitimate.
For more information on what to do about personal debt, please see our Resources page.