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If debt collectors call, don't panic

PERSONAL FINANCE

November 30, 2008|Kathy M. Kristof | Kristof is a freelance writer.

Marissa Ruiz learned about debt collection the hard way.

After struggling with credit card debt for years, the Pasadena social worker answered an advertisement from a debt-settlement firm last December.

She followed its instruction to stop making minimum payments and to let the firm's representatives handle everything.

That's when she started getting calls.

"Debt collectors were calling every day, threatening to sue me and take my wages," she said. "There was no reasoning with them at all."

Ruiz, 40, made a classic mistake, said Gerri Detweiler, co-author of "Stop Debt Collectors: How to protect your rights and resolve your debts."

Instead of dealing with her creditors directly -- or through a nonprofit credit counseling service -- she paid precious money to a settlement firm that gave her bad advice and managed to get her into more hot water.

Unfortunately, Ruiz's experience is more the rule than the exception. Consumers commonly make costly mistakes when dealing with debt collectors.

"Anyone could find themselves on the wrong end of a collection call," Detweiler said. "That's why it's important to remember that you do have rights and you don't need to panic."

Here are some things to do -- and things to avoid -- when confronted by debt collectors.

Don't hide: It's tempting to avoid creditor calls when you don't have enough money to pay, but that's a big mistake, said Bruce McClary, spokesman for Clearpoint Financial Solutions, a national credit counseling service.

"When you duck the calls, the situation gets worse," he said. "You can put yourself in the driver's seat by telling the person what's happening."

If you don't answer the phone or return calls, creditors will call more often and may call your friends and relatives to try to find you.

It's best to contact your creditors before you start making late payments, McClary said. But if it's too late for that, just explain what's happening and what you're trying to do about it.

"A little honesty goes a long way and significantly enhances the chance of a good outcome," he said.

Don't pay dormant debt: If you're being contacted about an old debt, the first thing to do is consider whether you actually owe the money, Detweiler said.

Every state has a statute of limitations that specifies how long you can be hounded about an unpaid debt. Typically, once that limit -- typically three to 10 years -- has been reached, you no longer need to pay.

That doesn't mean the debt collector can't sue you. But the statute of limitations is a perfect defense, Detweiler said. Don't let the collector intimidate you into making a payment on a debt that is past its expiration date -- that can make things worse.

"If you agree to make a token payment just to get the collector off your back, that action can extend the statute of limitations, giving them more time to collect from you," Detweiler said.

Dispute inflated debts: In many cases, an old debt will be inflated by late fees and debt collection costs. You may be liable for those charges, Detweiler said, but sometimes the amounts can exceed limits imposed by state law.

If the debt seems inflated, you have the right to dispute the amount, which gives you more time to investigate whether you owe as much as the collector says you do. Check with your state attorney general's office to find out what charges are allowed.

Stop abusive calls: Federal law bars debt collectors from calling repeatedly "with the intent to annoy, harass or intimidate" you, McClary said.

But exactly what qualifies as annoyance or harassment isn't clear.

In any case, you don't have to listen to abusive calls -- those in which the collector swears or insults or threatens you. Also, you have the right to bar collectors entirely from calling you at work.

If the collector is impolite or overly demanding, ask to talk to a supervisor or hang up, McClary suggested.

If that doesn't work, you may need to contact the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces debt collection laws, or your state attorney general.

Don't cut off communication: One reason to talk to debt collectors is to keep them from suing you. If you lose in court, the judge may allow the collector to garnish your wages -- taking a piece of every paycheck -- and may hold you accountable for court fees, significantly increasing the amount you owe.

If you are cooperating and communicating, your case typically won't end up in court. That saves everybody time and money.

Chronicle conversations: Keep every piece of correspondence and keep a log summarizing the phone calls you have with collectors, Detweiler said. This can help you if you get sued.

Negotiate: If you have more debt than you can afford to pay, the creditor may be willing to take less than what's owed to keep you out of Bankruptcy Court. That's what ultimately happened with Ruiz.

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