Debt Buyers Reveal Just How Far They’re Willing to Go to Settle Unpaid Debts

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

To encourage settlements, Encore recently announced that it would remove negative information from the credit reports of consumers two years after they paid or settled their debts. Traditionally, the negative “tradelines” remain on credit reports for seven years.

“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.

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Here’s Everything You Should Know About Term Life Insurance

Shot of a group of people warming up outdoors

The majority of healthy Americans can use term life insurance policies to get sufficient coverage in place for anywhere from $15 to $100 a month. Most (85%) American consumers believe that most people need life insurance, but just over 60% carry a policy. Even among those who carry a life insurance policy, the amount covered is frequently not enough.

Term life insurance is a low-cost way for individuals with financial dependents to meet those people’s needs even after death. But it can be confusing to understand what it is and what it covers.

When to Consider Life Insurance

Anyone who has a financial dependent should consider buying life insurance if they don’t have the assets available to cover their dependent’s financial needs in the event of their death.

There are five major events that create financial dependence and may justify the purchase of life insurance. These events include:

  1. Taking on unsecured debt with a co-signer
  2. Taking on secured debt with a co-signer
  3. Marriage
  4. Having a child
  5. Moving to a single income

How Much Life Insurance Do I Need?

Term life insurance is the cheapest form of life insurance, but carrying too much life insurance is a waste of money. The exact amount you decide to carry will depend on your risk tolerance and the size of your financial obligations. In this article we offer rules of thumb that can help you calculate the financial loss associated with your death.

Most life insurance companies and brokers also offer life insurance calculators, but these calculators rely on averages. Since each person’s situation is different, it can be valuable to create an estimate on your own.

Unsecured debt with a co-signer

If you’ve taken on unsecured debt (like student loans) with a co-signer and you don’t have sufficient cash or investments to cover the debt, then consider purchasing life insurance in the amount that is co-signed. The beneficiary of this policy should be the person who co-signed the loan with you.

For example, if your parents have taken out $50,000 in loans via a Parent PLUS Loan or private loans, then you should take out a $50,000 policy with your parents as the beneficiaries. In most cases involving unsecured debt with a co-signer, a short term (such as 10-15 years) will be the most cost-effective option for covering this debt.

Secured debt with a co-signer

Secured debts (like a mortgage or a car loan) have some form of capital that could be sold to pay off most or all of the loans, but you still might want to consider taking out life insurance for these types of debts.

While your co-signer can sell the asset, pay off the debt, and become financially whole, that may not be the right choice for your situation (especially if the co-signer is your spouse).

For example, a couple that takes out $200,000 for a 30-year mortgage may decide to each take out a $200,000, 30-year term life insurance policy. This policy will allow either spouse to continue to live in the house in the event of the other’s death.

Marriage

Marriage isn’t a financial transaction, but it brings about financial interdependence. In the event of your death, the last thing you want your spouse to be concerned about is their finances.

Couples without children who both work aren’t financially dependent on each other, but many people would still like to provide their spouse 1-3 years’ worth of income in life insurance to cover time off from work, final expenses, and expenses associated with transitioning houses or apartments.

A couple who each earn $40,000 per year, and who have $20,000 outside of their retirement accounts, can consider purchasing life insurance policies between $20,000-$100,000 in life insurance to provide for the other’s financial needs in the event of their death.

Having a child

Because children are financially dependent on their parents, parents should carry life insurance to cover the costs of raising their children in the event of a parent’s death.

The estimated cost of raising a child from birth to 18 is $245,000, so it is reasonable for each parent to carry a policy of $100,000-$250,000 per child. It is especially important to note that stay-at-home parents should not neglect life insurance since their death may represent a big financial loss to their family (manifested in increased child care costs).

The beneficiary of this life insurance policy should be the person who would care for your child in the event of your death. Sometimes this will be your spouse, but sometimes it will be your child’s other parent, or a trust set up in your child’s name.

If a couple has two children under age 5, and $50,000 in accounts outside of retirement, then each parent should have between $150,000 and $450,000 in life insurance. Parents of older children may choose to take out smaller policies or forego the policy altogether.

Income dependence

If your spouse is dependent upon your income to meet their financial needs, then it is important to purchase enough life insurance to care for their immediate and ongoing financial needs in the event of your death. If you are the exclusive income earner in your house or if you co-own a business with your spouse that requires each of you to play a role that the other cannot play, then your death would yield a tremendous financial loss for several years or more.

In order to estimate the size of policy needed in this situation, there are a few guidelines to consider. According to the well-respected Trinity Study, if you invest 25 times your family’s annual expenditures in a well-diversified portfolio, then your portfolio has a high likelihood of providing for their needs (accounting for inflation) for at least 30 years. A policy worth 25 times your annual income, less the assets you have invested outside of retirement accounts, is the maximum policy size you should consider.

Many people choose to take out even less than this because their spouse will eventually choose to return to work. A second rule of thumb is that the total amount of life insurance for which your spouse is the beneficiary should be worth 10-12 times your annual income. A policy of this size would reasonably provide money to pay for living and education expenses (if your spouse needs to re-train to enter the workforce) for many years without damaging your spouse’s prospects of retirement.

Based on these rules of thumb, if you earn $100,000 and your family’s expenses are $70,000 per year, and your spouse is a stay-at-home parent, then you should have enough life insurance to pay out between $1 million and $1.75 million (remember to subtract the values of any other policies or non-retirement assets above when calculating this amount).

How to Shop for Life Insurance

After deciding on the amount of insurance you need, and the terms you need, you can start shopping for the best policy for you. Although it’s possible to shop around for the best insurance, MagnifyMoney recommends that most people connect with a life insurance broker. For this report, every quote received from a broker was within a few cents of the quote received directly from the insurance company.

If you tell a broker exactly what you want, they can pull up quotes from a dozen or more reputable companies to get you the most cost-effective insurance given your health history. This is especially important if you have some health restrictions.

People with standard health (usually driven by high blood pressure or obesity, or many family health problems) may find some difficulty finding low rates, but brokers can help connect them with the right companies.

People with “substandard health” because of obesity, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol, those suffering from current health issues, or people recently in remission from major illnesses will not qualify for term life insurance.

Top Three Life Insurance Brokers

  1. PolicyGenius – PolicyGenius is an online-only broker with an easy-to-use process and helpful policy information. Users give no contact information until they are ready to purchase a policy. PolicyGenius’s system saves data, so users don’t have to re-enter time and again. It is very easy to compare prices and policies before applying.
  2. Quotacy – Quotacy is an online-only life insurance broker with connections to more term life insurance companies than most other life insurance companies. Quotacy offers quick and easy forms to fill out, and they do not require that you give contact information until you are ready to purchase a policy. Unfortunately, they do not fully vet out the policies, so you may need to ask an agent questions before completing a purchase.
  3. AccuQuote – AccuQuote is an online-based brokerage company that specializes in life insurance products. Unlike the online-only brokerage systems, their quotes are completed through a brokerage agent via a phone call. People who prefer some human interaction will find that AccuQuote emphasizes customer service and offers the same price points as online-only competitors.

Top Life Insurance Companies

For those who prefer to shop for life insurance without the aid of a broker, these are the top five companies to consider before purchasing a policy. Each of these companies allow you to begin an application online though you may need to connect with an agent for more details (including a rate quote).

To be a top life insurance issuer, companies had to offer the lowest rates on 30-year term insurance for preferred plus or preferred health levels, and be A+ rated through the Better Business Bureau.

  1. Allianz – Allianz offers the lowest rates for both Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, but they do require you to contact an agent or a broker for a quote.
  2. Thrivent Financial – Thrivent Financial offers the lowest rates for Preferred Plus customers, but they require you to contact an agent before they will confirm your rate.
  3. American National – American National offers among the lowest rates with Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, and they work closely with all major online brokers. You must contact an agent to get a quote directly from them.
  4. Banner Life Insurance (a subsidiary of Legal & General America) – Banner Life Insurance offers an online quote portal and very low rates for Preferred Plus customers. They also seem to be a bit more lenient on the line than other customers for considering Preferred Plus (not considering family history).
  5. Prudential – Prudential offers an online quote portal and the lowest rates for Preferred customers.

What to Expect Next

After you’ve decided to purchase an insurance policy, the policy will need to undergo an underwriting process. This will include a quick medical examination (height, weight, blood pressure, urine sample, and drawing blood) that usually takes place in your home. After that, the insurance companies will need to collect and review your medical records before issuing a policy for you.

Underwriting typically takes 3-8 weeks depending on how complete your medical records are. The company will then issue you a policy, and as long as you continue to pay, your policy will remain in effect (until the expiration of the term). Once your policy is in effect, you can rest easy knowing that your financial dependents will be taken care of in the event of your death.

 

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