Finding the words charged off on your credit report isn’t good news. It can be scary and confusing when you don’t understand what it means or how it happened. The name itself isn’t helpful either. People often misinterpret the meaning, which can lead to more costly mistakes with your credit.
Learning what charged off means and the impact charged-off debt has on your credit report can help you make informed decisions to get your credit back on track. Here is what you need to know about the meaning of charged off.
What Is a Charge-Off?
Having a charged-off debt means you have not been paying the full minimum payment on money you borrowed for a significant amount of time. Because of the delinquent payments, your debt is re-categorized as “charged off” on the company’s profit-and-loss statements. That means your creditor has given up hope that you will pay them back. The company considers the debt a loss, marks it charged off as bad debt as a profit-and-loss write off, and will either sell or transfer your delinquent debt to a collection agency or a debt buyer.
At that point, one debt may now appear twice on your credit report, compounding the confusion. One debt listing will be from the original company you borrowed money from. The second listing is from the debt collector the account was transferred or sold to. Both accounts will show up as active, which can make it frustrating to decipher.
Does Charged Off Mean Paid Off? Do I Still Owe the Debt?
Having your debt charged off does not mean your debt is paid off. Charged off is often used interchangeably with written off, sometimes leading people to believe the creditor has written off their balance and they no longer need to pay their debts. That is not the case. The company is writing off your debt as a loss for its own accounting purposes, but it still has the right to pursue collection of the past-due amount.
You are still legally obligated to pay back the money you borrowed unless you settle (or file for certain types of bankruptcy) or the statute of limitations has been reached.
When Will a Charge-Off Happen?
Creditors will first try to send letters to remind you of a past-due bill. If that fails, they move to a collections process. Re-categorization to “charged off” typically happens after your payment is 180 days past due, though installment loans (something along the lines of a mortgage, for example) can be charged off after 120 days of delinquency. The six-month mark comes from a generally accepted accounting principle that determines 180 days to be the point after which receiving payment is highly unlikely.
It is important to note that debts can be charged off even if payments have been made, providing that all of the payments were below the account’s monthly minimum. Once the debt is charged off, the delinquency is reported to credit agencies.
How Does a Charge-Off Affect My Credit Report?
A charge-off will be bad news for your credit report. Because a charge-off comes from missing payments, you will have late payments and a charge-off listed on your credit report. Negative information such as those lead to a lower credit score. In fact, late and delinquent payments have the largest impact on your credit score: up to 35% of your score is determined by your payment history. And a lower credit score can cause everything from higher insurance rates to larger utility deposits to being denied credit.
How Long Does Charged-Off Debt Stay on My Credit Report?
Just like late payments, a charged-off account will remain on your credit report seven years from the date of the last scheduled payment before the account went delinquent. The time period does not start over again if the debt is sold to a collection agency or debt buyer. After the seven years, the charged-off account will automatically be removed from your credit report.
What Should I Do if I Have a Charge-Off?
The best thing to do is to pay the balance of your charged-off debt in full. Once paid, the report will show “paid charged-off.” It won’t remove the charge-off from your credit report, but it will show you are making an effort to resolve the negative account.
If you are unable to pay the debt in full, create a budget to find extra money to pay down the debt quicker. Paying your other debt on time each month is another great way to improve your credit report.
If you want to avoid having any of your accounts charged off, the best thing to do is take preventative measures. Learn and maintain positive financial habits and avoid living outside your means. Look into automating your finances as well to make sure you don’t miss any payments on your cards and put yourself at risk for getting charged off.
And don’t forget to check your credit report at least once a year to make sure everything is accurate and being paid. If you want to check your progress more often, you can get a free credit report summary, updated monthly, from Credit.com.
Source: Leonard & Reiter (2013). Solve Your Money Troubles, Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy. Berkeley, CA: NOLO
The next time you speak to a debt collector, you might find yourself negotiating with a computer. And you might actually prefer that.
Consumers buy toothpaste and bread without talking to a person. They get boarding passes for flights with a few swipes of a credit card or mobile phone. Why not pay off debt with a click or a text? After all, many consumers expect self-service now, and would rather perform these kinds of transactions without ever interacting with another human being.
Debt Collection Is Going Digital
In April, Experian announced a self-service platform named eResolve, which it says will let consumers negotiate and resolve past-due obligations without ever talking to a debt collector.
“The eResolve platform negotiates with the consumer on the client’s behalf and direction to resolve their obligation in a frictionless environment,” Paul DeSaulniers, senior director for risk scoring and trended data solutions at Experian, said in an email. ”eResolve is providing a way for the consumer to interact on their terms, at any time of the day or night using a digital channel that is more preferred over the traditional phone call and avoids aggressive collection tactics.”
A firm named TrueAccord attracted a lot of attention in 2014 promising to create a similar digital debt collection platform. CEO Ohed Samat says that since then, TrueAccord has generated plenty of success stories. He claims more than 60 clients with 1.4 million consumers are “on the platform.” There have been “hundreds of thousands” of resolutions — including consumers who could easily click and tell the firm they’d been victims of ID theft, or had filed bankruptcy, so collections efforts should stop.
Adios, Debt Collector Misbehavior?
It’s easy to see the potential advantages of digital collections. For starters, the obvious: Misbehaving debt collectors top most lists of consumer gripes, so getting rid of the “human element” can get rid of the illegal threats. After all, computers don’t get frustrated.
“Debt collection is a powder keg. There are explosive situations,” Samat said. “A computer doesn’t get tilted (frustrated). You can’t yell at computers and scare them.”
The old-fashioned method of debt collection resembles telemarketing, and when done badly, adds a layer of badgering that can violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. While more phone calls don’t mean higher collection rates, they do mean greater risk for harassment allegations. Both Experian and TrueAccord claim their technologies work to optimize the timing and method of communication with customers to get the best results.
“Consumers desire a more seamless and convenient way to resolve their debts, without what is often felt as an uncomfortable exchange,” DeSaulniers said. “The process is about making the experience less threatening for consumers and gives them the flexibility to access their account at any time. Doing so increases the consistency and efficiency of the debt collection process.”
ACA International, a trade association that represents collection agencies, did not immediately respond to request for comment for this article.
“First, the lender or collection agency contacts the consumer to remind him of his debt owed. At the same time, a website link is provided to the consumer, who can negotiate the payment of his debt without human interaction,” DeSaulniers said, describing the process. “Next, the consumer logs on to the website to submit a reference number associated with their account and then explores repayment options. Here, the consumer may negotiate payment amounts, terms and dates within parameters set by the lender.”
For example: Debtors get an email with an offer such as making three payments with 0% interest, or 90 cents on the dollar if paid in full. Depending on what lenders say they’ll accept, a consumer who turns down that offer might get a subsequent pitch for an 80-cents-on-the-dollar settlement. (Do you know your state’s statute of limitations on debt collections? Check them out using our handy map on debt collection statutes of limitations by state.)
Samat says machine-based debt collection solves several problems. Chief among them: thorny regulatory issues. Computers don’t call or text at the wrong times. They don’t use forbidden language, such as threat of law enforcement.
“Because of our machine-based approach, almost every line of text we send (to consumers) is pre-written and preapproved. It’s much easier for us to be compliant,” he said. He claims TrueAccord gets 66 times fewer complaints than traditional collection agencies (the sample size is still small).
Digital debt collection also fits into modern consumer behavior, Samat said. More than 60% of the interactions his firm has with debtors happen after hours, when it would be illegal to call.
“It’s people at 2 a.m., on their mobile phone, looking at their options,” he said.
Collection Efforts Tailored to Your Behaviors
But there’s more going on than just staying on the right side of the law. TrueAccord’s computers watch consumer behavior and learn when best to ping them for a resolution. If someone has spent several nights clicking through settlement options, perhaps that’s a good time to send a text, or even make a better settlement offer.
“People are different. Some need encouragement. Some need inspiration. Some need to be pointed to the facts,” he said. “We reach out in the right channel at the right time in the right language.”
Some of that language is funny – one note tells a debtor that a bill feels neglected and is “listening to breakup songs and eating ice cream” because it is unpaid. Per one consumer’s report, however, some were more sanctimonious, or even menacing.
When asked about the complaint, Samat said that if the cited email was really from TrueAccord, it was probably “very old and long decommissioned.”
“It did take us a while to find the right type of honest and clear communication that consumers respond well to,” he said. “And, of course, we have unfortunately seen cases where consumers confused us with other agencies.”
But digital debt collection might have a secret weapon: embarrassment – or rather, the lack of it.
“Consumers feel less judged,” when talking to a computer, Samat said. “Consumers in debt are afraid and overwhelmed. We speak to them in a tone they appreciate … we give them more flexible choices, so they feel like they aren’t being harassed.”
Tens of millions of Americans are pursued by debt buyers, speculators who buy the rights to collect their overdue bills. Yet few consumers realize this growing segment of the collection industry may offer them a chance to slash their delinquent debts by as much as 75%.
A MagnifyMoney investigation examined the business practices of debt buyers as detailed in disclosures to their investors. Here’s how the game is played:
Buyers purchase massive bundles of unpaid consumer debts with face values that often total billions of dollars. Those are the bills that banks, credit card companies, and other creditors give up trying to collect.
Those debts are bought at deeply discounted prices, averaging roughly 8 cents on the dollar.
The buyers only expect to recover a fraction of the original amounts owed. Their target is to recover from 2 to 3 times more than they paid.
The bottom line: Debt buyers can turn profits that meet their goals by collecting merely 16% to 24% of the original face values. That knowledge can be useful to savvy debtors who choose to negotiate a settlement for less.
Debt buyers “absolutely” have more flexibility in negotiating with consumers, says Sheryl Wright, senior vice president of Encore Capital Group, the nation’s largest debt buyer. Encore offers most debtors a 40% discount to settle, according to the company’s website.
“There could be an advantage in terms of negotiating a favorable settlement,” says Lisa Stifler of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer advocate. “Debt buyers are willing to – and generally do – accept lower amounts.”
Stifler warned that debtors should be cautious in all interactions with debt buyers and collectors. (See “Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors” later in this article.)
In the world of debt buying, the numbers can vary. The price of bad debt portfolios ranged from 5 to 15 cents on the dollar during the past two years, according to corporate disclosures of debt buyers. The variables include the age of debt, size of account, type of loan, previous collection attempts, geographic location, and data about debtors – plus shifts of supply and demand in the bad debt marketplace.
What remains constant is the debt buyers’ goal of recovering 2 to 3 times more than the purchase price they pay for the accounts.
It is a different business model than that of traditional debt collection agencies, contractors that pursue bills for a percentage of what they recover. In contrast, debt buyers may often be more willing to wheel and deal to settle accounts with consumers.
Debt buyers raked in $3.6 billion in revenue last year – about one-third of the nation’s debt collections, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s latest annual report.
Information is scarce on the inner workings of hundreds of debt buyers who operate in the U.S. An accurate count is not available since only 17 states require buyers to be licensed.
Of the more than 575 debt buyers that belong to the industry’s trade association, only three are publicly traded entities required to file disclosures last year with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. MagnifyMoney looked into reports from two of those companies and found telling insights into an industry typically secretive about its practices.
An “Encore” of unpaid bills
Encore owns nearly 36 million open accounts of consumer debt in the U.S. through its subsidiaries Midland Credit Management, Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance, and Atlantic Credit & Finance.
During 2016, Encore invested $900 million to buy debt with a face value of $9.8 billion – or 9 cents per dollar. On average, the corporation recovers 2.5 times more than it pays for debt portfolios – the equivalent of 22.5 cents per dollar owed, according to its annual report to the SEC.
In that disclosure, the San Diego-based operation details how it tries to get debtors to pay.
Encore boasts that its proprietary “decision science” enables it “to predict a consumer’s willingness and ability to repay his or her debt.” It obtains “detailed information” about debtors’ “credit, savings or payment behavior,” then analyzes “demographic data, account characteristics and economic variables.”
“We pursue collection activities on only a fraction of the accounts we purchase,” stated Encore. “Consumers who we believe are financially incapable of making any payments … are excluded from our collection process.”
The rest of the debtors can expect to hear from Encore’s collectors. But the company knows most won’t respond.
“Only a small number of consumers who we contact choose to engage with us,” Encore explained. “Those who do are often offered discounts on their obligations or are presented with payment plans that are intended to suit their needs.”
While the company offers most debtors discounts of 40% to settle, relatively few take advantage of that opportunity.
“The majority of consumers we contact do not respond to our calls and letters, and we must then make the decision about whether to pursue collection through legal action,” Encore stated. In its annual report, the company disclosed it spent $200 million for legal costs last year.
In a written response to questions from MagnifyMoney, Encore refused to reveal the number of lawsuits it has filed or the amount of money it has recovered as a result of that litigation.
“We ultimately take legal action in less than 5% of all of our accounts,” says Wright. If Encore has sued 5% of its 36 million domestic open accounts, the total would be roughly 1.8 million court cases.
Portfolio Recovery Associates has acquired a total of 43 million consumer debts in the U.S. during the past 20 years. Behind Encore, it ranks as the nation’s second-largest debt buyer.
Its parent company, PRA Group Inc. of Norfolk, Va., paid $900 million last year to buy debts with a face value of $10.5 billion – or 8 cents on the dollar, according to its 2016 annual report. Its target is to collect a multiple of 2 to 3 times what it paid.
It is a high-stakes investment. The company must satisfy its own creditors since it borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to buy other people’s unpaid debts. PRA Group reported $1.8 billion in corporate indebtedness last year.
PRA Group declined an opportunity to respond to questions from MagnifyMoney. In lieu of an interview, spokeswoman Nancy Porter requested written questions. But the company then chose not to provide answers.
Asta Funding Inc., the only other publicly traded debt buyer, did not respond to interview requests from MagnifyMoney.
Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors
All types of bill collectors have a common weakness: They often know little about the accounts they chase. And that’s a primary reason for many of the 860,000 consumer complaints against collectors last year, according to a database kept by the Federal Trade Commission.
Be sure the debt is legitimate first
In dealing with collectors, you should begin by questioning whether the debt is legitimate and accurate. You can also ask who owns the debt and how they obtained the right to collect it.
In 2015, Portfolio agreed to pay $19 million in consumer relief and $8 million in civil penalties as a result of an action by the CFPB.
“Portfolio bought debts that were potentially inaccurate, lacking documentation or unenforceable,” stated the CFPB. “Without verifying the debt, the company collected payments by pressuring consumers with false statements and churning out lawsuits using robo-signed court documents.”
One unemployed 51-year-old mother in Kansas City, Mo. fought back and won a big judgment in court.
Portfolio mistakenly sued Maria Guadalujpe Mejia for a $1,100 credit card debt owed by a man with a similar sounding name. Despite evidence it was pursuing the wrong person, the company refused to drop the lawsuit.
Mejia countersued Portfolio. Outraged by the company’s bullying tactics, a court awarded her $83 million in damages. In February, the company agreed to settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
Challenge the debt in writing
Within 30 days of first contact by a collector, you have the right to challenge the debt in writing. The collector is not allowed to contact you again until it sends a written verification of what it believes you owe.
Negotiate a settlement
If the bill is correct, you can attempt to negotiate a settlement for less, a sometimes lengthy process that could take months or years. By starting with low offers, you may leave more room to bargain.
Communicate with collectors in writing and keep copies of everything. On its website, the CFPB offers sample letters of how to correspond with collectors.
As previously noted, debt buyers generally have more leeway to negotiate settlements since they actually own the accounts. A partial list of debt buyers can be found online at DBA International.
In contrast, collection agencies working on contingency may be more restricted in what they can offer. They need to collect enough to satisfy the expectations of creditors plus cover their own fee.
As part of a settlement, the debt buyer or collector may offer a discount, a payment plan allowing the consumer to pay over time, or a combination of the two.
“Through this process, we use a variety of options, not just one approach or another, to create unique solutions that help consumers work toward long-term financial well-being and improve their quality of life,” says Encore’s Wright.
A settlement doesn’t guarantee the debt will be scrubbed from your credit report
“We believe the changes in our credit reporting policy provide a tangible solution to help our consumers move toward a better life,” says Wright.
However, Encore’s new policy does nothing to speed up the removal of any negative information reported by the original creditor from whom the company bought the debt.
Check your state’s statute of limitations on unpaid debts
Before any payment or negotiation, check to see if the statute of limitations has expired on the debt. That is the window of time for when you can be sued; it varies from state to state and generally ranges from three to six years.
If the statute of limitations on your debt has expired, you may legally owe nothing. If the expiration is nearing, you can have extra leverage in negotiating a settlement. But be careful: A partial payment can restart the statute in some states and lengthen the time a black mark remains on your credit record.
Respond promptly if the company decides to sue
If you are sued over the debt, be sure to respond by the deadline specified in the court papers. If you answer, the collector will have to prove you owe the money.
If you don’t timely answer the complaint, the burden of proof may switch to you. A judge may enter a default judgment against you – or even sign a court order to garnish your paycheck.
Seek help from a lawyer or legal aid service if you have questions, but be careful of where you turn for help. The CFPB warns consumers to be wary of debt collection services that charge money in advance to negotiate on your behalf. They often promise more than they can deliver and get paid no matter what happens.
Here’s something your may not know: Tax season is like Christmas for debt collectors.
In fact, as president of a national debt collection company, I can tell you some agencies will collect as much money from February through May as in the remaining eight months of the year. Why?
Well, the first reason is a bit obvious: Many consumers in debt will receive a tax refund and go on to use that money to pay off their delinquent debt. Second, many debt collectors are good at what they do and want to help consumers resolve their outstanding liabilities. They’re willing to work out or negotiate a payment plan the consumer now has the ability to repay. (And, yes, that means the debt collector who’s been contacting you may be willing to settle up for less than what you owe.)
So who has the upper hand when it comes to getting debt repaid during tax season? If the cards are played right, both the consumer and the debt collector come out ahead.
During this time of year, consumers are generally going to come across two types of debt collectors. The first is a debt collector who understands a consumer has access to a limited tax refund — and is potentially trying to pay off a multitude of debts. This collector will be looking to help the consumer resolve as many debts as possible with the funds they receive back from Uncle Sam. The other type of debt collector will hold their ground, knowing the consumer has funds to pay off a singular debt, and will ultimately refuse to negotiate payment for a lesser amount. Odds are consumers will run across both types of debt collectors during this time of year.
What Drives a Debt Collector’s Settlement Stance?
If you have an outstanding debt, it is important to understand the delicate balance collectors face during tax season. Several factors determine what debt collectors ultimately are able to do for consumers looking to settle a debt for less than what is owed.
The main factor is the client whose behalf they are collecting on. Settlements live and die with the requirements of a client; either they authorize the debt collector to offer a settlement or they do not. If the client allows for settlements, it is dependent upon the agency as to when, where and/or how they offer one. Some agencies may only offer settlements for accounts on file for 60 days or more, whereas other companies will offer settlements on the first day the account gets to their office.
The Odds Are in Your Favor
It is more probable than not that during tax season a debt collector has the ability to offer a settlement. Contrary to popular belief, debt collectors do not like to turn away money, especially this time of year. While one may hold firm for a while, when approached with a reasonable settlement offer, they will generally do what is in their power to get it approved. They may be willing to waive excess interest, late fees and other non-principal-related charges before tax season is up as well.
On the flip side, consumers should not expect a debt collector to take “pennies on the dollar” to settle accounts. Even if their agency did directly purchase the debt — which happens less frequently these days — the debt collector you’re dealing with isn’t the person who directly bought the debt, and they are going to be required to follow the guidelines set forth by their employer. You can find more tips for negotiating with a collector here.
The Bottom Line
Tax season can be a mutually beneficial time for the consumer and the debt collector, so if you’re hoping to shore up an outstanding account and/or are looking to strike a deal, now may be the right time to do so.
Just keep in mind, if one side tries too hard to “game” the other, an opportunity to resolve a bad debt will likely fall through and that bill will remain delinquent. At the end of the day, if consumers and debt collectors engage in a professional and respectful dialogue, it’s likely they’ll reach a resolution that benefits all parties.
[Editor’s Note: A collection account can wind up hurting your credit score. To see where yours stands, you can view your free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]
This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.
While shopping for a home to buy, Ryan discovered through his credit monitoring service that a collection account had hit his credit reports. His credit score dropped, and he was worried it could jeopardize this ability to get a mortgage. “I had no idea what it was,” he says. He wanted it off his credit.
After doing some research online, Ryan (he asked his last name not be used to protect his privacy) connected with Michael Bovee of Consumer Recovery Network, who helped him negotiate with the collection agency to resolve the account.
Bovee had good news for Ryan: The collection agency that had the account, Midland Funding, had recently made changes to their credit reporting policy. Because the account had been delinquent more than two years prior, if he resolved it he could get it removed from his credit reports and continue looking for a home to buy.
Collection Accounts Can Damage Your Credit for Years
One of the most frustrating things about collection accounts is that once they are on your credit reports, the damage is done. You can resolve them — settle them or pay in full — but they still can remain on your credit reports for many years, affecting your credit scores and flagging you as a higher risk to lenders. (You can see how much collection accounts are harming your credit by reviewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com. The scores are updated every 14 days.)
It can be a long time before you completely put them behind you. By law, collection accounts may be reported for seven years, plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor. So if you stopped paying a department store card in January 2015, for example, and it later wound up in collections, that collection account could be reported until June 2022. Ouch!
While the newest credit scoring models — FICO 9 and the latest version of VantageScore — ignore collection accounts with a zero balance when calculating credit scores, most lenders are using older credit scoring models that treat all collection accounts as negative, whether they are paid or not. That means consumers trying to get a mortgage, car loan, credit card, or auto insurance may wind up paying more because of a collection account that perhaps was resolved some time ago.
Worse, most consumers seem to believe that paying a collection account will help improve their credit scores and are often shocked to learn after that fact that it doesn’t.
So when Encore Capital, which owns Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance and Atlantic Credit and Finance, quietly changed its credit reporting policy late last year, consumers who were the beneficiary of this new, more lenient policy may not have realized how fortunate they were to have these items removed from their credit reports, sometimes years before they would have been previously.
Specifically, these companies announced they would:
Stop reporting accounts that were more than two years old if the account was paid in full or paid for less than the full balance, and
Not report new accounts if payments are made within three months of the initial notice and are made on time thereafter until the account is paid in full or paid for less than the full balance.
According to one source familiar with this action, over 1 million of these derogatory accounts have already been removed from credit reports as a result of this change. There are at least 30 million Americans with accounts in collection, according to the FTC, but some estimates put that number as high as 77 million.
Changes on the Consumer’s Side
Bovee has been encouraging the industry to adopt new reporting policies for some time. “If the newer (credit scores) say paid collections don’t really matter, then keeping them on there is just punitive,” he says.
It’s not just consumers that can be hit by collection accounts. According to a National Federation of Independent Businesses survey in 2012, nearly half of small business owners use their personal credit in some way, shape or form to finance their company, so entrepreneurs with collections on their credit reports may struggle to get credit when their business needs it because of a mistake years prior. (You can check your business credit reports for collection accounts that may be hurting your business credit scores.)
Last year, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) proposed a bill that would have reduced the time negative information stays on credit reports to four years and required that paid and settled debts be removed from credit reports within 45 days. However, that legislation stalled in Congress. (You can read more here about how to repair credit report issues and possibly improve your credit.)
Credit reporting is a voluntary system and no lender is required to report. But generally credit reporting agencies (and even some regulators) frown on removing accurate information early, as it may increase risk to lenders who are unaware of the consumer’s full credit history. So far, the change in collection account reporting by these major debt collectors hasn’t been met with public opposition from the bureaus.
Ryan appreciates this change. He knows that not all collection accounts are removed so quickly. “It’s very good to find out this will come off completely,” he says, “and makes you feel as if paying it off is well worth it.”
Bovee believes that other collection agencies are likely to follow suit in the not-too-distant future. After all, they want to get paid, and if consumers know that resolving their collection accounts will help get them removed faster, they are more likely to try to strike a deal.
“The cat’s out of the bag, and it needs to stay that way,” he says.
Don’t feel guilty for being suspicious if you’ve been contacted by a debt collector. You should be. Debt collection agencies are notorious for using aggressive practices to get debtors to pay up. Sometimes those tactics can be illegal, and consumers may not know when they are not getting a fair shake. That is why you need to stay on your toes when dealing with collectors.
Debt collection agencies are third parties that have bought debt from the original creditor after the debtor is unable to pay for a certain amount of time. The companies buy past-due debt for a fraction of its value, then assign collectors to pester you to pay as much of the original debt as possible to make a profit.
Many debt collectors are legitimate businesses collecting past-due debts that consumers have not paid. But the list of complaints against debt collectors is growing. Since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) began accepting complaints about debt collection in July 2013, debt collections became the most common source of complaints in 2015, outstripping credit reporting and mortgages.
Debt collectors use illegal practices even though they are illegal “because they can get away with it,” says Christine Hines, a legislative director at National Association of Consumer Advocates. That’s because consumers often don’t know their rights and do not file complaints. “If a consumer is faced with these aggressive tactics, sometimes they will choose trying to pay the debt instead of paying for food,” Hines added.
If you are like 77 million Americans who have a debt in collections today, chances are you’ll come in contact with a collection agency sooner rather than later. If you arm yourself with knowledge of your rights beforehand, you can potentially save yourself from a lot of undue stress, both financially and mentally.
Here are a few common lies that collectors will tell you to get to your money:
6 Lies Debt Collectors Tell
“You owe us X amount of money.”
Admittedly, this statement isn’t always a lie, but you should immediately be skeptical of whatever a debt collector says you owe. Because collection agencies constantly buy and sell debt, there’s no telling if the debt a collector is asking you to pay hasn’t been sold or if the company actually owns that debt at all.
“A big tell [for a scam] is if the person doesn’t even recognize the debt or if the debt collector doesn’t give any information about themselves or the company,” said Hines.
You may potentially owe some part of the debt the collection agency has called you about, but they may have added additional fees. Those fees can include things like commission fees paid to the collector, transaction fees if you use an online service to pay them, fees related to the company’s cost of collection, or interest or other penalties.
Debt collectors have been known not to keep up with paperwork in the purchase and sale of debt, so the collector may have limited or no information about the debt other than your name and the debt balance. But you have a right to know where the debt is from.
Ask for a debt verification letter before you pull out your wallet to pay. Under federal law, consumers are entitled to have a debt validated within 5 days of their first contact with the collector. The notice should have the name of the original creditor and what you should do if you don’t think you owe the money. The CFPB also provides templates of letters to send to a collector if you think you don’t owe the debt or need more information about it here.
“Just make a small payment today, and I’ll get off your back.”
This is a common strategy debt collectors may use if they know that the debt they are pursuing is too old. Each state has a statute of limitations on how long a creditor has to seek legal action against (i.e., sue) a borrower for an unpaid debt. It varies by state but can be from 10 to 20 years. Once that time has passed, you can’t be sued for a debt, and there really isn’t a legal incentive for you to pay the debt off. The damage has been done to your credit already (it may have even already fallen off your report if seven years have passed) and making a payment will not improve your score.
In fact, it could do the opposite. By making even a $1 payment on an old debt, you essentially restart the clock on your statute of limitations. There’s a reason this kind of debt has been nicknamed “zombie debt.” All of the sudden, you have revitalized a dead debt, and you are now vulnerable to lawsuits and other legal actions.
The CFPB is working to crack down on the ability of debt collectors to pursue zombie debts. In a list of proposed rules released this summer, the agency outlined proposals that would require debt collectors to have and provide more details about the debt in the collection process. The rules also require collectors to tell you more specific information about the debt, including if it’s too old for a lawsuit, when applicable.
“I am an investigator.”
Using the title of “investigator” is an intimidation tactic designed to scare you into paying up. Don’t fall for it. In fact, if the collector says they are an investigator or says that they will call the investigator on your case, get out of that call and report them to the CFPB immediately. It’s illegal for collectors to imply or claim outright that they are anyone they aren’t, such as a federal investigator, attorney, or government representative.
It’s easy to see why this is such an effective tactic. Saying that they are an investigator conveys the sentiment that you have committed a crime, or are about to be arrested, both of which are also illegal for a collector to claim.
“Someone is on their way to serve you papers.”
Saying they might sue you could be an empty threat meant to bully you into making a payment.
If you receive any documents that look like a lawsuit, you should check to make sure they are legitimate. That can be as easy as making a quick phone call. The laws vary from state to state, but most debt collection lawsuits are filed in state court. The National Consumer Law Center recommends calling your state clerk’s office to confirm that a case has been filed in that court. In some states, you can go online to see if a case has been filed against you.
It’s against the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) for collection agencies to indicate that papers they send you are legal forms if they are not or vice versa, so be on the lookout for that.
“If you don’t pay, we will have you arrested or garnish your wages.”
Plain and simple, threatening to arrest you, garnish your wages, or seize your property is illegal under the FDCPA. The law prevents trained debt collectors from saying any of those threats or threatening legal action if they don’t actually intend to sue you. Now, the collection agencies certainly can sue you to collect. And if they win, a judge could allow the agency to garnish your wages. Federal law limits wage garnishment based on your income. If you are sued and the complaint is legitimate, don’t ignore it. If you do, you could forfeit your chance to fight a wage garnishment in court.
“We need your payment TODAY.”
If a debt collection agent is speaking with urgency or trying to get you to pay up right that moment, there is a good chance it’s a scam. Real debt collection agents may insist that you pay them, but likely won’t insist that you do it immediately or issue threats if you don’t agree to fork over funds right away.
If this happens, and it’s a real collection agency, any threats that were made could fall under illegal harassment under the FDCPA. The act states collectors “may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact.” So, if the collector threatens violence, uses obscene language, or calls you constantly after you’ve asked them to stop, you can and should report them. File a complaint with the CFPB or the Federal Trade Commission.
Can a debt collector contact family, friends, or co-workers in an attempt to find you?
Yes, yes, and yes. But she or he can’t say very much.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act offers consumers a wide set of protections about how collectors can go about their business. But it doesn’t prevent them from contacting whoever they want while looking for you.
There are very strict rules about what they can say, however. The law says collectors can only ask about a debtor’s “location information,” meaning their “place of abode and … telephone number at such place, or … place of employment.”
What Can a Collector Say?
Critically, collectors are not allowed to share any information about the debt with these third parties. Collectors do have to identify their employer if asked, which probably tips off neighbors or relatives that the debtor has money trouble. But otherwise, collectors cannot reveal anything about the debt. Generally, they can’t even leave voicemails requesting callbacks.
The law also only gives collectors one bite of that apple. They can’t call friends, neighbors or co-workers more than once, unless they have some reason to believe there is new information to be gleaned.
Here’s what the law says:
“(A collector can not) communicate with any such person more than once unless requested to do so by such person or unless the debt collector reasonably believes that the earlier response of such person is erroneous or incomplete and that such person now has correct or complete location information.”
A bunch of other rules further limit who debt collectors can contact and how. If a collector knows a debtor can’t take personal calls at work, the collector can’t call their workplace, for example.
And most importantly, once a debtor tells a collector to stop calling third parties, or stop calling the office, those calls must stop. Their only legitimate reason to contact a third party is if collectors have no way to contact the debtor, so a request to stop third parties eliminates the grounds for contacting them.
Also, if a debtor is being represented by an attorney, the collector must contact that attorney instead of the debtor or any third party.
While the law is pretty clear on what is and isn’t permitted, there are ample opportunities for abuse. Collectors who reach family members or friends may hint — or directly express — threats aimed at the debtor. They may even request or demand payment. Those activities are illegal, but it’s easy to see how they can happen.
“If you don’t want your friend to get in serious trouble with the law, make sure you deliver this message,” for example.
A Different Kind of Block Party
Collectors who repeatedly use these tactics with multiple neighbors are conducting what’s known as a “block party.” It’s illegal, and victims can sue collectors for sizable damages when a block party is conducted. A similar tactic, when used to call a debtor’s workplace, is sometimes called an “office party.” That’s also illegal.
Third parties who believe they have been harassed – if stop contact requests aren’t honored, or if they are contacted at inconvenient times – can potentially have their own cause of action against collectors, in addition to potential legal action by the debtor.
It’s no surprise that consumers don’t like debt collection companies very much. It is a surprise, however, that complaints against them keep mounting, even after federal regulators sue firms for the very things consumers complain about — trying to collect on debts that don’t exist, calling at odd hours, contacting workplaces, and so on.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regularly files reports about its complaint database — which has now logged 834,000 complaints overall. This month, the bureau highlighted debt collection complaints.
More than one-third (38%) of all debt collection complaints involved attempts to collect a debt consumers claim they don’t owe. In fact, when asked what type of account the debt collection firm called about, the most common entry after “other” was “I do not know,” at 24%. Credit cards were next at 14%. Consumers also said collectors frequently didn’t share enough information for consumers to verify the debt exists.
“Consumers complained about receiving multiple calls weekly and sometimes daily from debt collectors,” it said. “Consumers often complained that the collector continued to call even after being repeatedly told that the alleged debtor could not be contacted at the dialed number. Consumers also complained about debt collectors calling their places of employment.”
Complaints grew fastest during the final three months of 2015, compared to that same period in 2014, among residents of Indiana (38%), Arizona (27%) and New Hampshire (26%). On the other hand, complaints dropped in Maine (-34%), Wyoming (-26%) and North Dakota (-23%). Among larger states, Illinois saw a drop in complaints (-4%) while California saw a large increase (10%).
The most-complained about debt collectors were Encore Capital Group and Portfolio Recovery Associates. Both companies averaged more than 100 complaints each month between October and December 2015. And both have been the subject of enforcement actions, now settled, in which the firms admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to refund millions to consumers.
Portfolio declined to comment on the report, but Encore’s Sheryl Wright, senior vice president for corporate and government affairs at Encore, said the following in an email:
“Like any business, complaint volumes tend to be proportional to a company’s size, so as we look at the CFPB’s statistics, it’s important to remember that Encore has millions of interactions with consumers each month,” Wright said. “Despite being the leading purchaser of consumer debt we are only 2% of CFPB’s debt collections complaints. We also have more than double the accounts of the next largest company, yet we have significantly fewer complaints in comparison. … It’s also important to note that some of what’s listed as ‘complaints’ are not actual complaints but questions or disputes from consumers about their accounts.”
Among collection firms attracting the most complaints, Transworld Systems Inc. showed the largest increase – 84% during the last three months of 2015, of compared to the end of 2014. The firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Today’s report shows that inaccurate information about debts continues to be a source of frustration for many consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We will continue to hold debt collectors accountable for ensuring that they are collecting the right amount from the right person.”
And remember, not all debt collection calls are legit. Two tip-offs that you’re likely talking to a fake debt collector are that they won’t mail written confirmation of the debt or that they threaten dire consequences (jail, arrest, imminent lawsuit) if payment isn’t made immediately. Before you pay a debt collector, ask for written verification of the debt. Collection agencies, by law, must send this within five days of initially contacting you. Insisting on this is just one way to stop a scammer.
A North Carolina man found himself on the wrong end of a 14-year-old VHS rental gone wrong this week.
As local news station WSOC reported, James Meyers was pulled over for a broken tail light, but when the officer ran his license, it came back with an arrest warrant for failure to return rental property from 2002 — a VHS tape of Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered” from a since-closed video rental store, to be exact. Failure to return rental property is a misdemeanor in North Carolina and can carry a $200 fine, according to WSOC.
The officer let Meyers take his daughter to school and go to work before returning to the police department to deal with the warrant later that day. Meyers ended up arrested and in handcuffs when he returned, and spent a couple of hours dealing with the warrant before being released and given an April 27 court date. Green even called Meyers after hearing about the incident.
You may have heard before that old debt can come back to haunt you. It’s rare that an old debt results in a criminal charge, like in Meyers’ case, but even small charges like overdue library books or movie rentals can end up in collections, hurting your credit scores for years. Collection accounts can remain on your credit report for 7 years plus 180 days from when the debt originally went into default. You can get copies of your free annual credit reports on AnnualCreditReport.com to see if you have any old debts haunting you. You can also get a free credit report summary on Credit.com every month to see how debts are impacting your credit scores.
And you can do a few things to get old debts off your credit reports as well:
Dispute the account. You can dispute the account if it’s on your credit report for longer than it should be or appears in error. You can do this yourself or hire a credit repair company to help you if you want to hit the easy button on the situation.
Negotiate with the original creditor. The original creditor may be willing to pull the debt back from collections and ask the debt collector to remove the collection from your credit report if you’re willing to pay.