You failed to pay a bill when you were out of work, or you forgot about an old debt. Suddenly, debt collectors are contacting you through the mail and phone calls. It can be frightening, especially if you’ve never been in such a situation before.
The most important thing is to know your rights. Debt collectors cannot take money out of your paycheck without having obtained a legal settlement in court. Debt collectors cannot threaten you. And you do not have to put up with insults or demeaning behavior from them.
If debt collectors are coming after you, here are five key actions you can take to put yourself in control of the situation.
1. Document every contact. Whenever they contact you, whether by phone or by mail, document it. Save the letter they sent to you, and take notes on any phone calls they make. Record the time and date of all such contacts. Similarly, make a copy of any letters or other materials that you send to them. The more documentation you have, the stronger your case will be if you wind up getting sued by a debt collector.
2. Get a validation notice. Upon contacting you, a debt collector must send you a validation notice within five days that explains how much you owe and to whom you owe the debt. If you are retaining all documentation the debt collector sends you, then you should have a copy of this. If you threw away some of the early material, you might have thrown away this document, so you should request another copy. Document when you make this request.
3. Ensure that you actually owe the debt. Once you have the validation notice, make sure that this is truly your debt. Sometimes, debts are created in your name in cases of identity theft. You’ll want to check your credit report, which you can do for free at annualcreditreport.com. Your credit report should include some evidence of the debt.
If you have no record of this debt and it is not yours, you should create an identity theft report by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Then, pass that report to the debt collector along with a letter clearly stating that you have been a victim of identity theft. As always, document this contact and include dated copies of what you sent to the FTC. Here’s an example letter from the FTC that you can send.
4. Stop harassment with a certified letter. You must send the debt collector a certified letter if you want the collector to stop calling or sending mail to you. This letter must clearly state that you wish for them to stop contacting you. However, bill collectors can still contact you if they take legal action regarding your debt, like suing you. Note that asking them to stop contact will not make the debt disappear.
5. Try to negotiate a deal. They’re likely to offer you a “discount” on the debt that you owe because, in their eyes, getting something out of this is better than getting nothing or going to court. In this situation, negotiation is on your side. Offer to pay a smaller amount, particularly if you can pay that amount in full, as that will be much more appealing to the debt collector than a payment plan. Start by offering less than you can afford, even as little as 10 percent of the amount owed.
Negotiate in writing by sending a letter, and, as always, keep a copy for your records. Pay by check and write “Cashing this check constitutes payment in full” in the memo area of the check. Don't forget to make a photocopy of the check for your records. Also, never submit any payment until you have an agreement in writing from the collector.
These steps will help you take control of your debt collection situation and move on with your life.