How to Stop Debt Collectors from Calling
The ringing just won’t stop. You know who’s calling. It’s a debt collector. But you won’t answer it this time (or the next time they call) because you know you can’t afford to give them the money they say you owe. At home, at work, on your cell phone in the middle of an important meeting — how can you stop the ringing if you can’t afford to pay?
There are ways to get a debt collector to stop calling you, but they require you first pick up the phone to avoid consequences worse than annoying phone calls.
“When they can’t reach you, or call you, or figure out if they will ever get a payment from you, they will sue you,” said Randy Williams, CEO of non-profit credit counseling firm A Debt Coach. By not answering the calls, he said, you’re creating a ton of stress for yourself and maybe losing productivity at work or at home as a result.
It may take several months before the collectors quit calling and attempt to sue you, so it might be good news if they’re still calling. Read on to learn how to deal with them.
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What does it mean to have debt in collections?
When you have a debt in collections it means you’ve missed more than just a payment or two. The account is significantly past-due and, for that reason, the lender has retired its attempts to try to get you to pay up. Instead, the original creditor either referred it to their own collection agency or sold the account to a third-party collections agency to try to collect the money owed. It’s possible the debt has been sold multiple times.
In addition to stress and inconvenience, a debt in collections can cause serious damage to your credit score. According to FICO, simply having a collections account listed on your credit report is likely to lower your credit score. The amount your score drops will depend on how high your score is to begin with (the higher the debt, the bigger the drop) and when the debt was sent to collections (the more recent the collection, the bigger the drop). Collections accounts can remain on your credit report for up to 7 years plus 180 days from the delinquency date that immediately preceded collection activity. (For example, if your account was delinquent in March 2017, but you caught up in May 2018, only to fall behind again in July 2018 and then have the account go to collections, it could remain on your credit report for 7 years plus 180 days from the date in July 2018 your creditor reported you as delinquent.)
What to expect when you have a collection account
Most debts, like credit card or medical debt, become delinquent when you miss the first payment. At first, the lender will usually try to contact you directly through their internal collections office to get you to make up for missed payments and any fees involved.
After a few months with no response from you (around 180 days past-due), the lender may decide to write off the account as a loss (aka charge off) and sell it to a third-party collection agency. (The third-party agency then takes on the responsibility of collecting the past-due debt.
Once your debt is in collections, the agency will use debt collection tactics to get you to resolve the debt. The attempts to contact you — via phone, letter, email, social media or your emergency contacts — will become frequent and aggressive.
“The only sure way to stop the collection calls or to get them to stop harassing you is to get on a payment plan or pay the debt off in full,” said Todd Ossenfort, the chief operating officer at Pioneer Credit Counseling, a Rapid City, S.D.-based non-profit credit counseling agency.
After about 90 days, the debt collector might give up and decide to sue you or sell your debt to another agency to repeat the cycle.
What debts can collectors contact you for?
Debt collectors can contact you for debts covered under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which we explore in detail in the following section.
Collectors can legally contact you regarding personal, family and household debts like mortgages credit cards, medical debts and other debts related to family, personal or household purposes. Under the FDCPA, collectors may not contact you for some personal debts. For example:
- Debts incurred to run a business or business debts
- Debt for agricultural purposes
In addition, some states have their own consumer protection laws that may cover aspects of debt collector behavior that the FDCPA does not.
When, where and who can debt collectors call?
By law, third-party debt collectors (agencies that are attempting to collect debts on behalf of someone else) have to operate within the parameters of the FDCPA. The law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission prohibits deceptive, unfair and abusive debt collection practices. The FDCPA only governs third-party debt collectors; it does not apply to your original creditor.
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from calling consumers at inconvenient times. Under the law, collectors may not contact you outside of the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m, unless you agree to it. The law also prohibits harassing behavior like calling repeatedly to annoy or abuse you into answering the phone.
If a collector is calling you at work, you can get them to stop. After you tell the collector orally or in writing that you’re not allowed to get debt collection calls at the office, they legally can’t contact you there anymore.
“Some collectors have violated the FDCPA and threatened people, called them at work when asked not to,” said Melinda Opperman, executive vice president of non-profit credit counseling agency Credit.org. “Even if you owe the debt, you don’t have to stand for mistreatment from a collector. Assert your rights and tell them to stop harassing you.”
Other parties represent you in a collections situation. If you make it known to the collector you’ve handed the reins over to a credit counseling service, debt management agency or a lawyer, the law requires the collector to speak with your debt counselor or legal counsel.
If you don’t have other representation, a debt collector can contact a third party — like an emergency contact or spouse — but only to find out your address, home phone number and where you work. They generally may not contact the third party more than once and cannot discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse or your attorney.
How to stop debt collectors from calling
When a debt collector calls you repeatedly, don’t avoid the calls out of fear or guilt.
“The law is generally on your side when negotiating with collectors,” said Opperman. “But they do harass and abuse debtors surprisingly often. We find that most people feel guilty if they have a debt they can’t repay, so they don’t stand up for themselves.”
But you can, and should. Here’s how:
Pick up the phone
Don’t avoid the calls. Answering the call is your first step to resolving the debt. Once you’ve established communication with the debt collector, you can verify the details of the debt and decide what to do about it.
Assume its a scam
“Our best advice is to treat every collector who calls you like a potential scammer, and not to give them any information until they’ve satisfied all of the legal requirements of the FDCPA,” said Opperman. She said that’s why it’s important to start with debt validation, which we cover later on.
Monitor your conversation with the debt collector. She said the more abusive and threatening the collector is, and the more urgent their demands, the more likely they are to be a scammer. Watch your words, too.
“There are a lot of debt collection scams out there, so you have to be careful what you say,” said Opperman. For example, don’t give your bank account information to a collector, especially if the collector says the request is urgent and try not to make any promises to pay the debt if you do not intend to.
Opperman advised those dealing with collection agencies not to accept credit card “offers” that come with an offer for settlement or request a payment in any other way, as they may be offers to pay on time-barred debts (debts that are older than the statute of limitation for collection in your state). A shady collector may offer to cut back fees or interest charges on your debt in exchange for a payment, but that payment could be used to reset the clock on a near-expired debt. Making a payment on a time-barred debt (or one nearing the statute of limitations) could reset the clock on the debt, meaning the collector has an extended window within which it could sue you for the debt.
Know your rights
Do your part and get familiar with your rights under the FDCPA and your state law.
“The FDCPA doesn’t apply to original creditors, only third-party debt collectors, but your state might have similar laws that do regulate the original creditor’s collection activity,” said Opperman. Check with your state’s attorney general’s office to find out about rules that apply to debt collection in your state.
Ask for validation
You don’t want to pay for anything you don’t owe. Check the validity of the debt with the collector.
“Ask for the collector’s mailing address, tell them you are going to look at your records and get back to them, then send a debt validation letter, said Opperman.
Request in writing that the collector verifies the debt is legitimate, the amount being collected is accurate and that you legally owe the debt. Keep a written record of all communication you have with the collections agency. You may need it to file a complaint with the FTC or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) or to use in court later on.
“Even if a debt is legit, a collector might be adding extra fees and interest, and validation will expose that,” said Opperman.
Check to see if the account has been re-aged.
Once you mail the letter off to the collections agency, look for the debt on your credit report. If you find it, check to see if the account was ever re-aged, or brought current, said Martin Lynch, compliance officer and education director at Cambridge Credit Counseling in Agawam, Mass.
Check the date you missed your first payment to calculate how old the debt is. If it’s ever been re-aged it will be noted on your credit report. Even if it’s yours, you may not have to repay the debt if it’s too old to collect.
The statute of limitations for collection is usually determined by your state law and generally starts from the date you missed your first payment.
Generally, negative information stays on your credit report for seven years. If the statute of limitations in your state is 10 years, for example, you may not see the debt on your credit report. However, if the statute of limitations is three years, you may still see the information on your credit report, but the collector can no longer sue you over the debt. Check with your state attorney general’s office or a lawyer to find out what the statute is in your state.
Lynch told LendingTree sometimes re-aging is a good thing for borrowers who fall behind, then resume making payments. In the case of a long statute of limitations, they get to start over with all of the negative information removed from their credit reports. But, Lynch also warned, re-aging debt can be used maliciously by collections agencies to restart the clock on your debt. Look for any re-aging done without your permission.
If the debt is yours: Work out an agreement
If you find the debt is legit, the amount owed is correct and you are legally obligated to repay it, a few things might happen.
The collector may try to sue you and get a judgment, in which case you’re legally required to repay the debt, and the creditor could garnish your wages to make that happen, Ossenfort said. Before that happens, you could set up a payment agreement to resolve the debt.
If the debt is in collections, the collections agency likely bought it for pennies on the dollar, so they may be willing to accept less than you owe to close the account. Try to negotiate a settlement with the collector — you may save as much as 75 percent on your delinquent debt. Negotiation works best if you are able to either repay the debt in full or pay off a large chunk of it right away.
If the debt is not up for negotiation and you are unable to pay in full, negotiate a payment plan with the debt collector. Talk to the collector to agree to terms you can afford. Make sure to follow through on your payments, or the calls will start all over again.
“The collector has to believe that you’re going to do it,” said Lynch. “Because so many are paid on commission, they’re going to balk at [a payment plan] because a lot of people fall back on payment plans within a few months.”
Lynch said to see if you can get a pay and delete, where the collector agrees to delete the negative information from your credit report if you pay off the debt. However, companies that furnish data to credit bureaus are required to report accurate information, so you may not be able to secure such an agreement. If you do, get it in writing, in case the debt shows back up and you need to file a dispute. The good news is that newer credit scoring models ignore paid collection accounts, so getting it off your credit report isn’t as big of a concern as it used to be. The bad news, though, is that those older credit scoring models that do factor in paid collection accounts continue to be used in lending decisions, particularly mortgage lending.
If the debt is not yours: Send a cease and desist
Do not send a cease and desist just to get the calls to stop, Opperman told LendingTree. “If the debt is truly yours, a cease and desist letter might make it more likely that you will be sued,” she said.
Knowing when to contact a lawyer
Lynch recommended contacting a lawyer if the debt is near the statute of limitations to determine whether or not you should repay. Be prepared to face a lawsuit in case the collections agency decides to sue.
What not to do when debt collectors call
Don’t make any promises
“Be careful not to promise to repay a debt, and don’t send any kind of payment until the debt is validated and you are fully intending to repay it as agreed,” Opperman said.
You want to avoid making promises, Opperman told LendingTree, because the collections agency may be able to use any promises you make against you in court.
Don’t give them your bank account information
You should never give a collector your bank account information. If you give the collections agency permission to debit your account once, you essentially allow them to keep doing so. They may take more than you agree to pay them. You might have to take the creditor to court to get your money back.
The safest way to pay a debt collector is to use a money order or a certified check, as the payment methods will not reveal your account information. You can also set up a bank account exclusively for making debt payments, and give the agency that information. Check the terms to make sure you won’t be charged any fees for insufficient funds, if the agency tries to take more money than they’re owed.
If a debt collector asks you to pay using a bank account, do not agree to it. If they insist that getting your bank account information is the only way to repay, that’s a sign you may be dealing with a scammer.
Don’t hang up on them or tell them to never call you again
“Surprising thing is the number [of people with collection accounts] that just continuously hang up on the collector,” said Lynch. “That’s not a person that I want to tick off. That’s being childish. You need to buckle down and deal with it.”
Again, be careful what you say to a debt collector. Try not to get frustrated and simply tell the collector not to call you again or stop calling, as it may prompt them sue, Williams told LendingTree.
What to do if a debt collector keeps calling
If the debt collector continues to call you after you’ve told them not to, or if you have validated that you do not legally owe the debt and have sent a cease and desist letter to the collections agency, report problems you have with the agency or debt collector to your state attorney general’s office, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Disclaimer: This article may contain links to MagnifyMoney, which is a subsidiary of LendingTree.