What do I do with this collection letter?
Another common question from our clients:
I received a collection letter in the mail, what should I do now to protect my credit rating?
There are several steps here, so please follow them closely.
Step 1. Identify the letter.
Often what appears to be a letter from a collection company is actually a bill from the provider or original creditor (OC). If it’s a bill then read on, otherwise skip to Step 2.
Your options here are to pay the bill in full, or call the OC and make payment arrangements because the goal here, is to keep the bill out of the debt collector’s hands and off your credit report.
Some techniques for negotiating bills not in collection yet:
- If you have a past due medical bill and make small payments EVERY 25 days (not 30) it will usually keep the bill out of the collection system.
- You can also have a large hospital bill audited which will usually reduce the bill significantly.
- All hospital bills should be detailed and you should be able to identify every charge, if they won’t give you one or help you understand it, ask for an ombudsman from the hospital. It’s been well documented that most hospital bills contain MANY overbilling errors.
- Negotiate for a cash payment, often you can get a significant reduction for cash.
If it’s not a bill and it really is a collection letter follow these rules then continue to Step 2.
- RULE #1 Never contact a collection company, especially by phone (except by mail: Cease and Desist, Validation, Intent to Sue letters and Settlements)
- RULE #2 Never make a payment to a collection company (without professional help)
- RULE #3 Never trust a collection company or their employees
- RULE #4 Document/record everything you do regarding this collection.
- RULE #5 Never volunteer ANY information to them, ever.
Step 2. Identify who the OC is:
If the collection letter doesn’t clearly reference who the OC is, then they probably can’t prove it either. Often a debt is sold many times and that is why you can find several listings on your credit report from the same debt. Figure out who this debt was originally owed to without violating Rule #1.
Step 3. Identify if the debt is past the statue of limitations (SOL)
There is an SOL for reporting to the credit bureaus, and there is another SOL for the time the debt collector (DC) can bring an action against you (sue you in court)
The statute for reporting to the credit bureaus for private debt is 7 years from the first date of continuous delinquency. Any private debts still reporting after 7 years have been re-aged and must be removed from your reports.
The statute for collectibility (through an action in court) varies from state to state from 3-15 years. If the debt has passed the SOL for your state, you have NO LEGAL responsibility to pay it and if you ask them to, the DC’s must cease all collection activity. So do that with a Cease and Desist letter.
Often dirt-bag DC’s will attempt to collect on a debt that you no longer owe (Stale debt). Since many states have different laws regarding their SOL, you should do your due-diligence. This website would be a good start. SOL in all 50 States. It’s important to know that if a DC offers you a payment plan on a debt on the last month before the expiration of the SOL; and you make a payment, (or even in some states “acknowledge the debt on the phone or in writing”) the statue of limitations will be reset and that clock starts over again! Again, DO NOT contact the DC under any circumstances.
Step 4. Use Validation, Failure to Validate and Intent to Sue letters
Send lots of certified mail on each of your debts that have reported to the bureaus, if the collection letter comes from a new company you know isn’t on your credit report, VALIDATE the debt within the first few days you get the dunning letter, most of the collectors that get a validation letter right away, never report it to the consumers credit bureau. If the debt is stale debt, send them a Cease and Desist letter.
Step 5. Sue them if they break the law
If they miss a step and the debt is less then $1,000, sue them. But you only have 12 months to start your lawsuit after they violate the law.
Step 6. If the DC validates and the debt is within the SOL, Settle it.
First off, never settle a debt with a DC without a deletion letter.
If you owe the debt and are financially ready to take care of paying it off make sure you settle the debt and request a deletion letter so that the listing is removed from your credit report otherwise it will still hurt your credit score even if you pay it off. Why? Because the date of activity on the credit report is updated on your credit report thus appearing as “recent collection activity” which will often cause a drop in the credit score.
Remember Rule #3? Don’t trust them to “send an update in the next 30-90 days”, they won’t and don’t, you’ll need the letter. Often they will tell you they will give you a deletion letter, but the wording on the letter will say “paid”, “settled”, or “satisfied”. That verbiage will NOT get you a deletion from the bureaus. Don’t give them money till you have a “good deletion letter”.
Although this process is daunting for many people, you can do it yourself if you have deep discipline and focus. If you don’t’ think you can “stay the course” and finish this process alone, you should hire a professional at the start to help you through the process. Feel free to contact us at any step you find yourself in, we’ll be glad to assist you.
Credit Guru Ruiz