How The Simple Act of Negotiating Helped Us Save $40,000

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You don’t have to be an expert negotiator to leverage the power of persuasion — and ultimately save big. Alison Fragale, negotiation expert and professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina, tells MagnifyMoney that a little preparation can go a long way.

“Any time you have goals you need to achieve, and you need someone else’s cooperation to make those goals happen, that’s a negotiation,” she said, adding that coming to the conversation prepared is often a game changer.

We caught up with a handful of folks who did just that. From talking down debt, to negotiating salary increases, these everyday people successfully haggled their way to some big financial wins — to the tune of $40,000 worth of savings.

Here’s how they did it.

I shaved $7,400+ off my student loan balance.

As of 2014, the average college graduate wrapped up their studies with nearly $29,000 in student loan debt, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. But your balances aren’t always set in stone.

Danielle Scott, a 30-year-old public relations professional in New York City, used some persuasive bargaining skills to save thousands on her private loans. The inspiration? After several years of just paying the minimum monthly payment and calling it a day, she was discouraged to see that her principal balance was relatively unchanged, thanks to super high interest rates.

“One was as high as 15 percent, and my total loan balance was about $80,000,” Scott told MagnifyMoney.

She called her loan provider, Navient, and cut a deal — if they agreed to lower the interest rate on her loans, she’d up her monthly payments from $400 to $1,500. They agreed, lowering her rate to 1% on one of her two loans, and Scott put everything she had into paying down the debt over the next five years. She paid much more in the short term, but she saved big over the long haul since she was shortening the life of the debt and putting way more toward the principal balance.

Earlier this year, when her balance had gone down to $15,000, her loan servicer reached out to her with a deal of their own. They were willing to reduce her balance to $9,000 if she could pay it off in two lump payments. Scott countered.

“I asked them how low they could go if I agreed to pay it all off in one payment,” she recalls. “At first, they said no, but after pushing back a little, and being put on hold for 20 minutes, they came back with $7,600 as their final offer, but I had to make the payment that day.”

Scott dipped into her savings to pay it and, just like that, was debt-free.

While you might have some wiggle room negotiating private student loan debt, federal student loans are a different story. If you’ve defaulted on federal loans and they’ve been sent to collections, you can use one of the following standard settlements to make good with the U.S. Department of Education, according to student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz:

  • Pay off the current principal balance plus any unpaid interest; collection fees are waived.
  • Pay off the current principal balance plus 50 percent of any unpaid interest.
  • Pay off a minimum of 90 percent of the current principal balance and interest.

Just keep in mind that settlements are generally due in full within 90 days. (FYI: There’s also a chance you’ll have to pay taxes on whatever is forgiven.)

I talked my way out of $20,000 of medical debt.

In 2010, Robin, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer, was involved in a major car accident that almost cost her her life. The road to recovery was a long one and included multiple surgeries and hospital stays. Despite having health insurance, her bills eventually reached a whopping $197,000. But it wasn’t until she really pored over the statements that she noticed some major errors.

“A mix of in-network and out-of-network medical providers were billing me for whatever my insurance company wasn’t paying, even after I’d met my deductible,” Robin, 57, told MagnifyMoney.  She requested that we not use her full name because she’s still negotiating down her debts.

In many cases, she was getting treated by in-network hospitals, but by medical providers who, she later learned, were out of network. This led to tons of surprise bills; a phenomenon known as balance billing, which isn’t always legal in her home state.

“I called each and every medical provider, in some cases threatening to report them to the attorney general,” she recalled. “Some bills were forgiven more easily than others; some took years to resolve, but nothing was ever sent to collections.”

All in all, Robin has wiped out about $20,000 of her medical debt by directly challenging providers — a wise move considering that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that medical bills make up over half of all debt on credit reports.

I negotiated a $15,000 raise and promotion.

When it comes to nailing down a raise, getting a pay bump of 2 percent per year is the average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But you might be able to get more if you’re willing to negotiate.

Ariel Gonzalez, a 33-year-old front end development engineer in Orlando, Fla., has successfully negotiated multiple pay raises over the years. The latest got him a $15,000 pay bump and promotion after a year of working in a junior position.

“My demeanor is typically calm and confident, but firm,” he told MagnifyMoney. “I hate talking about money, but I know what I bring to the table as an employee.”

Gonzalez is a big believer in coming to salary negotiations as prepared as possible, researching comparable salaries on sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor. Referencing positive client testimonials in past negotiations has also proved fruitful. He landed his last raise in 2016 by showing up to the meeting with an air of respect and transparency.

“I came to my boss with my number, hat in hand, and said that it was what I needed to be comfortable and that I didn’t want to do the whole back-and-forth thing,” Gonzalez said, adding that the promotion and raise he was asking for were in line with his performance and proven results as an employee.

The preparation and confidence paid off; his boss had no problem granting his request. The takeaway? Do your homework ahead of time and ask for what you deserve.

Some expert negotiation tips to follow

Whether you’re looking to score a raise or buy a new car, Fragale suggests pinpointing the following three terms before beginning any negotiation:

1) What are you trying to achieve? This should be a clear aspiration that’s grounded in reality, given your circumstances.

2) What’s your walk-away point? Before going in, clarify the point at which you’ll abandon the deal. Fragale said knowing this beforehand is empowering because it discourages an “I’ll take what I can get” mentality.

3) What’s the alternative? In other words, if you don’t get what you want out of this deal, what’s going to happen? If the stakes are high and your alternative is terrible, you’ll be more inclined to settle for less than what you want. (Case in point: You’re more likely to settle for a low salary if your alternative is unemployment.)

“If you have the luxury, try and make your alternative as good as possible before negotiating,” says Fragale. “That tends to lift the whole boat.”

The post How The Simple Act of Negotiating Helped Us Save $40,000 appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

43 Million Americans Could Get a Big Credit Score Boost Soon — Here’s Why

 

Some 43 million Americans might see their credit report improve soon, thanks to new policies put into effect by the “Big Three” credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

As of Sept. 15, credit reports will no longer include medical debts that are less than six months past due.

This is a big deal. At least one unpaid medical collection appears on one in every five credit reports, and these medical debts negatively affect the credit scores of as many as 43 million Americans, according to a 2014 study of collection data by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

This is the second major change to credit reporting this year that could help boost millions of Americans’ credit scores. As of July 1, the major credit reporting agencies agreed to remove from consumer credit reports any tax lien and civil judgment data that doesn’t include all of a consumer’s information.

This new medical debt reporting change, however, will have a far greater impact. Research has shown that many consumers’ medical debts aren’t all that representative of their creditworthiness, which helped drive the bureaus to make the change. In fact, around 50 percent of Americans with medical collections on their credit report had no other significant blemishes on their credit report, according to the CFPB.

And even though the cost to your credit can be dire, most Americans don’t actually even owe that much for their medical expenses — the average unpaid medical collection tradeline is only $579, according to the CFPB’s 2014 study. This means many consumers are taking major credit hits for a relatively low bill.

Additionally, the agencies have promised that if your insurance company ultimately pays off a medical collection, this debt will be removed from your credit report altogether. Both of these changes will provide more time for insurance claims to process, says John Ulzheimer, a consumer credit expert based in Atlanta.

Expect to see an impact soon

The changes officially take effect on Sept. 15, and their influence will be felt fairly immediately. These new policies are both immediate and retroactive, meaning no medical debt from within the last six months should show up on your credit report after that time.

Jenifer Bosco, a Boston-based staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) who specializes in medical debt, recommends using these changes as an opportunity to check your report now. That way, you can see if there are any collections that need to be altered because of the new debt practices.

Bosco suggests viewing your credit report for free by filling out an online request with Annualcreditreport.com. You can check out MagnifyMoney.com’s online guide for a bank-by-bank breakdown of how to easily receive your FICO Score.

The immediacy of this agreement is important, because medical collections can be a long and arduous process. Bosco says the new 180-day window is especially helpful because it provides a cushion for consumers who are trying to work through expenses with their insurance provider.

“It’s definitely helpful for people who might actually just have a debt and owe the money, but also people who are going through a lengthy process with their insurance company to get something covered under their policy,” Bosco says.

How much will credit scores improve?

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While it’s difficult to measure exactly how much unpaid medical bills can affect your credit, Ulzheimer says these debts are typically just as detrimental as other collection types. “For example, the impact can range from severe, if you don’t have other unpaid bills on your credit report, to nominal, if medical bills are just one of many outstanding collections,” he told MagnifyMoney.

Having good credit often makes the cost even higher. According to the CFPB’s collection data research, an unpaid medical bill of $100 or more can drop a credit score of 680 by more than 40 points, but the same bill could drop a score of 780 by more than 100 points.

Consumers who notice incorrect medical debt after Sept. 15 should send a dispute to the credit agency that falsely reported it, the NCLC recommends in a press release. If this doesn’t work, you can reach out to the CFPB. If your state’s attorney general was one of the offices involved in the agreement, you can direct your issue to them.

The CFPB research also found that the lack of price transparency and complex insurance coverage systems make medical bills often a source of confusion for consumers. People can often incur debts simply because they aren’t sure exactly what they owe or who they need to pay. Having more time to figure out what you owe, pay your debts, and work through collections with your insurance company can be a major financial benefit, Bosco says.

Bosco also says the changes go beyond specific circumstances and that these protections will be helpful regardless of your situation.

“It benefits all consumers who have medical debt,” she says.

Better credit for all?

The changes are the result of two separate settlements — one with the Attorney General of the State of New York and one with the attorneys general in 31 other U.S. states — but Ulzheimer says the changes are universal.

This means that regardless of what state you live in, credit agencies can’t fault you for medical debts that are less than 180 days old, or for collections that are ultimately handled by your medical insurance.

Hopefully, these changes mean there will be less medical debt bogging down Americans’ credit overall.

The agreement was reached voluntarily, which means there is no sweeping federal or state law or regulation guiding these changes but shows the credit agencies are on board.

“We have never hesitated to go beyond the letter of the law to voluntarily improve the existing credit reporting environment,” Stuart Pratt, the president and CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) said in a press release announcing the changes. The CDIA represents the country’s consumer data industry, which includes the three major national credit agencies.

Still, this decision is incredibly important considering how instrumental the “Big Three” are in determining credit scores.

The federal government considers Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to be the country’s major credit agencies, and you’re entitled to a free report from all three companies each year. The information that shows up on reports from the “Big Three” carry major weight, so having a chance to improve your score with these groups can go a long way.

To aid this process, the NCLC has created guidelines — called the Model Medical Debt Protection Act — to help protect consumers from unfair medical collection procedures. The guidelines can be used as a standard for improving their medical debt practices even further.

The post 43 Million Americans Could Get a Big Credit Score Boost Soon — Here’s Why appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Should You Use CareCredit to Pay for Medical Expenses?

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It’s no secret that medical expenses can be very costly in the United States. Since 2011, average family insurance premiums, even for people with employer-provided plans, have increased by 20 percent.

With out-of-pocket health care costs and insurance premiums skyrocketing, many people are turning to credit cards designated for medical expenses like CareCredit to help them pay for health care expenses over time.

But before you sign up for CareCredit to cover your next medical bill, here’s what you need to know.

A warning about those 0% financing offers

CareCredit is a credit card you can use at any of more than 200,000 health and wellness providers in the United States — from doctor’s offices to drugstores like Rite Aid.

Why turn to CareCredit instead of a regular credit card for medical expenses?

The biggest draw is the company’s frequent 0% financing specials for six to 24 months on qualifying purchases $200 or more, when you make the minimum monthly payments and pay the full amount due by the end of the promotional period.

The opportunity to put approved medical expenses on a 0% credit card and breathe easy for up to two years has huge appeal. But there’s one big caveat everyone should understand when it comes to CareCredit — deferred interest.

When you sign up for the CareCredit financing on a purchase of $200 to $999, deferred interest rate applies. This means that if you don’t have the full purchase paid off by the end of the promotional period, you will be charged retroactive interest at an APR of 26.99% from the date of your original purchase on the card. (We give an example of how the math works out below.)

Unfortunately, this is something customers could easily forget about, and it doesn’t help that the minimum monthly payment shown on your statement isn’t necessarily enough to get the entire balance paid off on or before the end of the special financing period. You should do the math yourself to make sure you’re paying enough each month to make the most of interest-free financing.

How CareCredit works

Now that you understand the risk that comes with a CareCredit account, let’s cover some of the details of what the company offers.

For larger purchases of $1,000 or more, CareCredit offers terms of up to 60 months with a reduced APR and fixed monthly payments until paid in full.

$200 to $999: Borrow at 0% for 6, 12, 18, and 24 months. Variable rate of 26.99% applies after promotional period ends.

$1,000 to $2,499: Borrow at 0% for 24, 36, or 48 months with an APR of 14.9%.

$2,500 and up: Borrow at 0% for 24, 36, 48, or 60 months with an APR of 16.9%.

How to apply

You can apply online on the CareCredit website or by phone at 1-800-677-0718. You can also apply at most health care providers’ offices if they are part of the network that accepts CareCredit to pay for services.

Like most credit card applications, you will need to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, net income and housing information. But unlike most credit card applications, you will also need to specify your doctor’s name and how you plan to use your CareCredit credit card if you aren’t applying in a doctor’s office. Once approved, you can use your CareCredit credit card again and again at participating health care providers.

CareCredit approvals are usually immediate, so you can find out right away if you can pay for your medical services with CareCredit. Synchrony, the bank that issues CareCredit, did not respond to phone and email requests for information on the credit standing needed to qualify for CareCredit.

What can CareCredit be used for?

As mentioned earlier, there are more than 200,000 enrolled providers that accept CareCredit in the United States. These include many different types of medical and health care providers and procedures, such as:

  • Chiropractic
  • Cosmetic
  • Dentistry
  • Hearing
  • LASIK and Vision
  • Primary and Urgent Care
  • Weight Loss
  • Health Care Specialists

You might even be able to use CareCredit to pay for veterinary care for your four-legged family members, if your veterinarian participates and accepts CareCredit in their office.

Fine print alert

While there’s no application fee or fee for using the special financing offered by CareCredit, there are still some things you need to watch out for.

The first, which we covered previously, is the high interest rate charged if you don’t pay your balance off in full by the end of the promotional period. The interest rate of 26.99% is very high, and as mentioned, it will be charged in arrears from the time you made your purchase.

For example, if you charge $1,200 to your CareCredit at 0% for six months and only pay the minimum payment each month (between $39 and $33), your balance will be $982 at the end of the six-month period, plus accrued interest of $152, totaling $1,134. If you continue making only the minimum payment, it will take you 96 months (eight years) to pay off your balance and cost you $2,693. However, if you paid $200 a month, you’d pay off the $1,200 bill within six months at no extra cost.

Source: CareCredit

The late payment fee for CareCredit can be up to $38. Plus, paying late even once may result in you losing your promotional 0% interest rate.

Who is CareCredit best for?

Because of the fact that CareCredit will charge interest from the time of your purchase if your balance is not paid in full by the end of a promotional period, the only time you should use CareCredit to finance your medical costs is if you are 100 percent certain you can pay it off within or before the end of that time frame.

This might be a good idea if you have already saved up the cash for a medical procedure and you can continue earning interest on it in your savings account. By earning interest on your savings and paying 0% interest with CareCredit, you can actually save money on your medical bill. This could still be risky: You never know if something might happen that could cause you to no longer be able to afford to pay off your CareCredit balance as you had planned.

Alternatives to CareCredit

Ask the billing department for a payment plan

Many health care providers offer patients no-interest payment plans, but you may not know about it unless you ask. Tell the billing department what you can afford to pay monthly and see what your options are for spreading out the cost of your treatment.

Use your emergency fund

If you know you incur a lot of medical bills or don’t want to rely on credit when they come around, make saving for medical expenses or adding to your emergency fund part of your regular budget. That way, if an emergency happens, you’re much less likely to go into debt paying for it.

Open a credit card with 0% financing for purchases or balance transfers

There are many credit cards available with 0% interest rates from six months to 21 months that don’t require you to pay off your purchase in full to avoid interest from back when you first made the purchase. Even if you can’t pay off the entire purchase before the end of the 0% interest period, you could try doing a balance transfer to keep your interest rate low, but even if you leave your balance on that credit card, it probably has a lower interest rate than the 26.99% offered by CareCredit. Here are some of your best options for a 0% credit card.

Take out a personal loan

If you can qualify for a personal loan with a low interest rate, you’ll have fixed monthly payments, and you may be able to extend them longer than the terms offered by CareCredit. We’ve rounded up some of the places you can get the best personal loan rates online, and you can read about them here.

Don’t get caught at the checkout counter at your doctor’s office and end up making the wrong decision. Make sure you’ve carefully considered your options before you decide if you want to sign up for CareCredit to pay for your medical costs.

The post Should You Use CareCredit to Pay for Medical Expenses? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

New Study Shows Number of Americans with Past-Due Medical Debt Down 6%

Fewer Americans are struggling to pay back medical debt.

The rate of American adults aged 18 to 64 with past-due medical debt dropped from 29.6% to 23.8% between 2012 and 2015, according to new study released by researchers at the Urban Institute.

Not surprisingly, people who did not have insurance were more likely to say that they currently had unpaid bills from a health care or medical service provider (a rate of 30.5%). But with the rise of high-deductible health plans, even people who have insurance find themselves in medical debt — 22.8% of insured consumers had past-due medical debt, according to the study.

When researchers looked at past-due debt by region, the differences were particularly staggering. There was “enormous variation across states,” according to Senior Research Associates Kyle Caswell and Michael Karpman, who authored the study.

Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of past-due medical debt were in the South, including Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. The other two were midwestern states Indiana and Missouri.

The researchers could not point to a solid conclusion as to why Southerners were harder hit by medical expenses.

“Of course we would like to understand better why, but it does give us a starting point for asking questions as to why the population differs from state to state,” said Caswell.

Why are rates of past-due medical debt dropping? It would be easy to conclude that the drop is due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. People today are simply more likely to have insurance, as the rate of uninsured Americans has fallen from 16.6% to 10.5% since the implementation of ACA in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Caswell and Karpman said it would be a stretch to give all the credit to the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act. The steady drop in unemployment and a general improvement of the U.S. economy over the last few years could also play a role, making it more likely that people can afford to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses.

As the Urban Institute’s report found, simply carrying health insurance isn’t enough to protect consumers against unexpected medical bills. Their findings are bolstered by a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found 70% of people with medical debt also have insurance, mostly through employer-provided plans.

How to Tackle Unpaid Medical Debt

In just moments, an unexpected medical emergency can put the average American family in thousands of dollars of medical debt. That can pose a burden, considering about of 47% Americans would struggle to scrape together $400 in case of an emergency according to the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.

Families with medical debt say the debt undercut their ability to save and afford basic household needs, the Urban Institute’s study found. To cope, families may rely more on credit cards and other forms of debt to make ends meet.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, outstanding medical debt makes up more than half of all collection notices on credit reports. Past-due medical debt can seriously harm your credit score. If bills go unpaid for long enough, consumers may wind up facing a lawsuit or even bankruptcy.

To help avoid these types of consequences, follow these tips to tackle medical debt you can’t afford to pay:

Ask for a detailed billing statement and check for errors

You may receive a billing statement from your insurer or medical provider, but it may not give the full picture of services you received. Request a detailed, line item statement and review it carefully for any errors. It’s possible you could have received treatment from an out-of-network doctor without your knowledge. Or, there may be duplicate charges or charges for care you didn’t receive. If you find errors, contact the provider directly and have them corrected and a new statement sent.

Negotiate with your medical provider directly

You might be able to negotiate down your medical debt or arrange a payment plan with the medical provider, whether it’s your doctor’s office, a hospital, or your insurer. Along the way, keep careful records of who you talk to and what was said. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to negotiate a medical bill with a health insurance company.

Try a 0% APR credit card

If your bill isn’t overwhelmingly large, you could try paying the debt off with a credit card with an introductory 0% interest period. Since you won’t be charged interest, you’ll pay less over the period. Before you apply, make sure you’ll be able pay off the balance before the 0% interest introductory period expires.

Pay off medical debt with a personal loan

If you’ve been unable to negotiate or you are struggling to find a 0% APR credit card deal, a personal loan may be another option. Depending on your credit history, rates on personal loans range from 4.7% to 36%. We’ve pulled together a list of six great personal loan options here.

Negotiate a settlement with a collection agency

Past-due medical debt eventually gets charged off and sold to a collection agency. But that doesn’t mean your window to negotiate has totally closed. If you have access to enough cash, ask if you can settle the debt for a lesser amount and forgive the remaining balance. Just be aware that forgiven debts can be treated as taxable income in some cases.

Seek help from a medical billing advocate

If you’ve been unsuccessful in trying to negotiate down your medical debt, the debt has significantly damaged your credit, or you are on the brink of filing bankruptcy, consider reaching out to a medical billing advocate. Don’t confuse these advocates with debt settlement or repair firms, which should be treated with caution.

You can find a medical billing advocate through the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants or the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals. These services aren’t free, and whether or not it makes financial sense to hire a pro depends on how much money you stand to save by lowering your debts. Advocates typically charge either a flat fee or a percentage of your savings.

Look for a charitable foundation that can help

You may want to consider reaching out to a nonprofit for assistance. If you were diagnosed with a particular condition, look toward organizations such as the Lupus Foundation of America for individuals with lupus or the American Kidney Fund for those with kidney disease. You can also apply for grants from nonprofits that provide more general assistance such as the Patient Access Network and the HealthWell Foundation, which may be able to grant funds toward medication assistance or other medical costs. With these foundations, limits for assistance may depend on your diagnosis and other factors.

Consider bankruptcy as a last resort

If the debt is more than 50 percent of your annual income, bankruptcy might be a viable move to make. Let the hospital know you’re considering bankruptcy first, as they may then be open to negotiation. Be aware the filing bankruptcy can adversely impact your credit for years after the fact.

The post New Study Shows Number of Americans with Past-Due Medical Debt Down 6% appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First

If you’ve ever been sued by a debt collector or service provider over medical debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you couldn’t afford to pay the original debt, you likely still can’t afford it. And if you want to defend yourself, you’ll have to face the additional time and cost of going to court, too.

You should know that you’re not alone. According to staff attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, when you look at debt collection items on credit reports in America, “half of those items are from medical debt. Not credit cards. Not auto loans. Medical debt.”

You may be tempted to ignore the suit since you know you can’t pay, but Wu advises against inaction.

“Always show up,” she says. “Never ignore a lawsuit. If you ignore it, the debt collector or service provider on the other side automatically wins by default.”

What happens when you show up, though? Here are four steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit.

  1. Find Out Where the Debt Comes From

You cannot properly address your lawsuit if you don’t understand where the debt comes from. If you look back at your past bills, you should be able to find a date of service and itemized list of services rendered with associated costs.

You may be in debt because you’re uninsured, but even insured patients end up in this boat thanks in part to a rise in high-deductible health plans. Mistakes can happen as well. If a patient visits an in-network hospital, but is unknowingly seen by an out-of-network doctor, they can be charged out-of-network fees. Doctors are independent contractors, so while the hospital may be affiliated with your insurance company, that doesn’t mean your service provider is inherently in-network.

2.Don’t ignore the lawsuit

In most consumer debt cases, consumers don’t have an attorney at all. But hiring an attorney to advise you can be a wise move. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, Wu says.

Most lawyers will provide a free consult before taking you on as a client. In this consult, they may be able to help you find your bearings so you can represent yourself.

Wu recommends seeking help from the Legal Services Corporation, a government-supervised nonprofit that provides legal representation at a low cost to low-income households. You can also seek help from nonprofit legal assistance firms in your area.

If you’re uninsured, one way to keep the case from going to court is to contact the doctor or debt collector immediately to negotiate your bill down to Medicaid/Medicare prices — which are often 2-3 times less than that of the gross price you were billed. When a provider refuses to negotiate down to these lower rates, it is called “discriminatory pricing,” and your legal counsel may recommend using it as a defense in court.

  1. Prepare for Court

The first thing you must do is prepare an answer to the lawsuit, including any defenses or countersuits that you want to raise. This will involve filing paperwork at the court, mailing paperwork, and showing up on your initial court date. Again, it’s advisable to get a lawyer to help you through this, or at least get a consult. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a helpful video explainer on preparing to defend a medical debt lawsuit.

It’s important to make this initial court date. It is very unlikely the judge will grant you a continuance that would move the court date further out.

There are some exceptions to this. If you are being sued in a state in which you no longer reside, it’s easier to mount a defense if you can’t appear in court. In fact, appearing in court could work against you, demonstrating to the court that you have no problem traveling to and from court out of state.

If you’ve been served in a state outside of your own, it is very important to get legal representation.

This is because you must answer the suit, but you must also do so in a way that does not imply that you are submitting to that court’s jurisdiction over you. The process is one that is best handled by someone trained in law.

After you answer the suit, the court will set a date for the discovery part of the trial. You will have to file more paperwork with the court before this date so that you are able to present evidence that you are not liable for the debt.

  1. Understand Wage Garnishment

If you are found liable for the debt, or you fail to answer the lawsuit and the judge rules against you, the court may issue an order giving the lender or collection agency the ability to garnish your wages. By federal law, they cannot leave you with less than 75% of your income or $217.50 per week — whichever is greater. State law may protect you even further.

Medical debt collectors are able to garnish your wages, but they cannot garnish Social Security benefits, disability insurance payments, unemployment insurance payments, VA benefits, pension distributions, child support payments, or public assistance benefits. If you have any of these forms of income, it’s wise to set up a different bank account where those funds are deposited and keep all garnishable wages in another separate account.

You should do this because a court order can go after your bank account balances, too. While that doesn’t make it legal to take money that came from any of these protected sources, separate bank accounts will make the incidence of errors smaller — saving you headaches and potential victimization.

  1. Understand Your Rights Before You go to Court

When it comes to medical billing and debts, you do have rights as a patient. Make sure you understand them so you can lower or eliminate your bill before or after you’ve been sued.

Were You Served Properly?

Sometimes wages are garnished before the plaintiff is even aware that there’s a lawsuit against them. This happens most commonly when you’re improperly served. Examples of using “improperly served” as a legal defense include papers being only mailed to you and not delivered in person, papers being left at an incorrect residence, or papers being mailed to an old address. Being “improperly served” does not mean that the papers were left with a family member or friend at your residence and they forgot to tell you about it. If that happened, you’re still on the hook.

If you have been improperly served, or if you find out that the court mistakenly started garnishing wages because you have the same name as an actual plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer immediately to figure out what possible recourses there may be for your specific situation.

  1. Get Low-Cost or Free Help from Financial Assistance Programs

In 2016, about 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. were not-for-profit, according to the American Hospital Association. This gives them tax-exempt status, but also obligates them to give back to their communities. Under the Affordable Care Act, these hospitals must provide some type of financial assistance program to low-income patients. Even if you aren’t from a low-income household, you should apply, as some hospitals extend their programs far beyond the poverty line. Many hospitals also extend this program to insured patients.

These hospitals have an obligation to let you know about their financial assistance programs within four months of when your bill has been issued.

You have until eight months after the initial bill was issued to apply for financial assistance. You have the right to do this even if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector, and even if that collector is the one suing you in court.

  1. Be Aware of Discriminatory Pricing

We’ve already touched on the fact that you can try to negotiate your medical bills down to Medicaid/Medicare prices. If you are being sued in court and are uninsured, discriminatory pricing can serve as a defense. If you qualify for the hospital’s financial assistance program, they legally must reduce your bill to the amount generally billed to insured patients.

  1. Look Out for Balance Billing

Balance billing happens when your hospital or medical provider bills you instead of or in addition to Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a forbidden practice, and you are not responsible for any amounts due when this happens.

You may be able to identity balance billing if you receive an “Explanation of Benefits” from your insurer that states the amount they covered and the amount you still owe. If this does not match the bill your medical provider sent you, there is a cause for concern. Additionally, if the bill you receive does not show any payment from your insurance when you are, in fact, on Medicaid or Medicare, it may be a sign that you are a victim of balance billing.

  1. Stop Lawsuits Before They Begin

If something about your bill doesn’t look quite right, there are ways to reduce it to its fair amount.

First of all, make sure the hospital didn’t make an error that resulted in a larger bill. One way this could happen is if something they did caused you to have to stay in the hospital an extra night, inflating your costs beyond what they should have been originally.

Another good avenue to pursue is to have your bill examined by a medical bill advocate. They’re familiar with coding and laws that you’re not, making them the perfect people to review your charges. You may find one in your community by asking around, or you can start your search with the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.

Debt collectors, hospitals, and other medical providers don’t want to take you to court. It costs them money, and the odds of them actually getting a full payment at that point are very low. They are almost always willing to work with you before issuing a lawsuit. Negotiate. Apply for financial assistance. Set up zero-interest payment plans directly with your health care provider.

Keep the lines of communication open so that no one ends up with the additional costs of litigation.

  1. Weigh Bankruptcy

At any point in this process, you can choose to file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy may alleviate the medical debt. Just be cautious. Bankruptcy is not a decision that should be made lightly, as it will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years and make it difficult to qualify for new credit.

There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 requires you to sell off all of your assets to settle what you can of your debt obligations. If you don’t have any or many assets, that aspect of it doesn’t matter much. What will matter is that the debt will essentially disappear after you file.

If you file for Chapter 13, you do not have to sell off any assets, but the debt won’t disappear either. Instead, you’ll be put on a 3-5 year payment plan in order to settle.

This may make sense if the court has already issued an order against your wages, but at any other point in your case, it would make more sense to try to set up a payment plan with the medical service provider or debt collection agency directly. Their last resort is wage garnishment. Don’t let it get that far. Know your rights so you can negotiate with them effectively rather than damaging your credit report through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

The post Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

5 Health Apps That Can Save You Time & Money

Need to vet a doctor? Schedule an appointment? Monitor your diet? These health apps can help.

For many, healthcare costs are higher today than ever before, leaving many savvy people seeking out resources for saving money and time while addressing their health and wellness. Fortunately, with so many free and cheap health management apps available for download on your smartphone or tablet, the information and resources you need are now more accessible than ever before.

Remember, these apps aren’t meant to take the place of medical care, but they can provide supplemental assistance when it comes to vetting doctors, making appointments and managing your diet and exercise regiment. 

With that in mind, here are five money- and time-saving health management apps you can consider using.

1. ZocDoc

Cost: Free

How much time have you wasted trying to find a medical professional who is within your insurance network and has great reviews? Now, you can make finding a new healthcare specialist easier and faster with ZocDoc. This innovative app allows you to search a desired area for doctors and specialists — and you can filter based on reviews, location, insurance network, and more. Plus, once you find the right specialist for your needs, you can even book your appointment through the app and access any necessary paperwork you’ll need to fill out before your appointment.

2. iTriage

Cost: Free

iTriage was created by two emergency room physicians, and aims to help users get a better idea of what their symptoms may be caused by. Essentially, users can enter the specific symptoms they’ve been experiencing and receive a list of potential ailments or other medical issues that could be the cause. Again, this app is not meant to be used in lieu of seeing a doctor for an official diagnosis or treatment. Instead, the app will help you find a doctor or facility in your area who can treat you. Plus, it can tell you the nearest local urgent care or ER facility if needed.

3. LoseIt!

Cost: Free

LoseIt! is a great app for tracking your daily calorie intake, as well as your energy expenditures through exercise and other activities. It even features a handy scanner that allows you to simply scan a food label barcode with your phone and then automatically enters nutritional facts to your daily log. There are also some fun user challenges and contests to help you stay accountable and continue pursuing your health and fitness goals.

4. Doctor on Demand

Cost: Free, but you’ll pay $49 for any video doctor visits you opt for

Have you ever had a question for your doctor but had to wait until your next physical or other appointment to bring it up? With Doctor on Demand, you’re never more than a few taps away from speaking one-on-one with a licensed doctor, pediatrician, or even a psychologist. These specialists can talk with you about your symptoms and even write prescriptions over the phone without you having to leave your home for an appointment. The app itself is free, but be aware that you will be charged for each “visit” with a licensed specialist.

5. Fooducate

Cost: Free

Want to make smarter choices when it comes to your diet and food intake? If so, and if you’re not sure where to start, Fooducate is a great resource. This app can provide you with everything from the calorie content of a particular food to a breakdown of the macro- and micro-nutrients. It also has a handy feature that assigns each food a “grade” from A to D, so you can get a better idea of the nutrition of the food you eat and make smarter decisions.

Health & Money

These are just a few of the health management apps out there that can save you precious time and money. Remember, of course, to read the fine print of any app you’re considering closely so you know, among other things, whether the app collects any data, how it might be stored and what actions in the app may have charges associated with them.

Keep in mind, apps are just one way to potentially improve your wellness and lower healthcare costs. You can find tips for improving your eating habits, for example, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

If you already have medical bills, there are some steps you can consider taking to address them more readily. For instance, you could ask the provider for an itemized bill so you can confirm the charges. You can also try negotiating with a doctor’s office for a lower payment (here’s some tips for how to do so.)

Remember, unpaid medical bills can go to collections and do some big damage to your credit. You can see how any medical debts may be affecting you by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. 

Image: kali9

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CFPB Sues Firm for Allegedly Scamming 9/11 First Responders

RD Legal, a settlement advancement company, has been accused of pushing expensive products on NFL concussion victims, as well.

A firm accused of scamming 9/11 first responders and former NFL players into giving them large chunks of their compensation funds via costly advance payment deals has been sued by federal and state authorities.

RD Legal Funding, based in Cresskill, New Jersey, was sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the New York State Attorney General’s office, the agencies announced Tuesday. The firm is accused of persuading victims who were awaiting payouts to accept advance payments from RD Legal, then pay large fees when their settlement payments arrived.

In one case the CFPB says was typical, a first-responder victim paid $33,000 for an $18,000 advance on a $65,000 payout from the Zadroga Fund, set up by Congress to compensate 9/11 first responders dealing with high medical costs.

RD Legal also is accused of targeting former NFL players diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases and thus entitled to payments from a class action lawsuit settlement, the CFPB said.

“It is unconscionable that RD Legal scammed 9/11 heroes and NFL concussion victims out of millions of dollars,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in a press release announcing the action. “We allege that this company and its owner lined their pockets with funds intended to cover medical care and other critical expenses for people who are sick and sidelined. Our lawsuit seeks to end this illegal scheme and get money back to those entitled to receive it.”

RD Legal also is accused of telling consumers they would speed up the payout process by cutting through red tape when the firm had no ability to do so. RD Legal also allegedly failed to provide advances to consumers for months after they were promised.

“The allegations contained in that lawsuit and accompanying press statements are outrageous and without merit,” said David K. Willingham, counsel for RD Legal, in an emailed statement. “Indeed, in January 2017, RDLF was forced to take action and sued both the CFPB and NYAG for engaging in an inappropriate overreach of their legal authority and failing to engage with RDLF on basic legal issues surrounding its contracts for the purchase and sale of the legal receivables at issue in both lawsuits. The claims made today by the CFPB and NYAG misunderstand and falsely characterize clear documents with those parties as “loans,” and falsely state that RDLF is ‘scamming’ the affected parties when it did nothing more than provide immediate liquidity – in the form of an arm’s length transaction – to people who voluntarily sought the benefits of early funding.”

Alleged Actions ‘Simply Shameful’

“The alleged actions by RD Legal — scamming 9/11 heroes and former NFL players struggling with severe injuries—are simply shameful,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in the same press release issued by the CFPB. “RD Legal used deceptive tactics to charge unlawfully high interest rates for advances on settlement and compensation funds, allowing them to profit off the backs of these unsuspecting individuals.”

The “funding fee,” in industry language,  can often be around 100%, as it was in the examples cited above by the CFPB.

This is not the first time RD Legal has caught the attention of federal authorities. Last year, it was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly defrauding investors who had bought into its hedge fund, designed to raise money to make such advance payouts. RD Legal denies those accusations.

The American Legal Finance Association, a trade association that represents consumer legal funding companies, says these payouts should not be regulated as loans because they are “non-recourse transactions,” meaning there is no collateral, and there’s no guarantee that the advance will be repaid.

“Consumer legal funding is used by victims of accidents who are struggling to make ends meet while they wait for a resolution in their case who have typically exhausted other financial options and often do not have access to traditional forms of credit,” the organization says on its website. “Legal funding fills a void in the financial products arena.”

But consumer advocates say it’s critical that federal authorities regulate bank-like activities from non-bank entities.

“Gone are the days when the financial services industry was dominated by hometown banks that served customers well and gave their kids a lollipop. Today, nonbank financial companies offer products to millions of consumers,” said Rohit Chopra, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, in a statement reacting to Tuesday’s lawsuit. “Americans need a strong consumer agency to restore law and order to the financial services industry. This oversight isn’t just a win for consumers, it’s a win for every lender who shouldn’t have to compete against fraudsters.”

Image: kali9

The post CFPB Sues Firm for Allegedly Scamming 9/11 First Responders appeared first on Credit.com.

3 Ways to Keep Medical Debt from Ruining Your Credit

Turns out, your physical well-being isn’t the only thing at stake when you go to the hospital. So too is your financial well-being. That’s because no debt is more common than medical debt.

The numbers are staggering in their scope. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than half of all collection notices on consumer credit reports stem from outstanding medical debt, and roughly 43 million consumers – nearly 20% of all those in the nationwide credit reporting system – have at least one medical collection on their credit report.

Now, you might be inclined to think that because you’re young or have both a job and health insurance, medical debt poses you no risk. Think again. According to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly one-third of non-elderly adults report difficulty paying medical bills. Moreover, roughly 70% of people with medical debt are insured, mostly through employer-sponsored plans.

Not concerned yet? Consider that a medical collection notice on your credit report, even for a small bill, can lower your credit score 100 points or more. You can’t pay your way out of the mess after the fact, either. Medical debt notifications stay on your credit report for seven years after you’ve paid off the bill.

The good news (yes, there is good news here) is you can often prevent medical debt from ruining your credit simply by being attentive and proactive.

Pay close attention to your bills

Certainly, a considerable portion of unpaid medical debt exists on account of bills so large and overwhelming that patients don’t have the financial wherewithal to cover them. But many unpaid medical debts catch patients completely by surprise, according to Deanna Hathaway, a consumer and small business bankruptcy lawyer in Richmond, Va.

“In my experience, it’s often a surprise to people,” says Hathaway. “Most people don’t routinely check their credit reports, assume everything is fine, and then a mark on their credit shows up when they go to buy a car or home.”

The confusion often traces back to one of two common occurrences, according to Ron Sykstus, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Birmingham, Ala.

“People usually get caught off guard either because they thought their insurance was supposed to pick something up and it didn’t, or because they paid the bill, but it got miscoded and applied to the wrong account,” says Sykstus. “It’s a hassle, but track your payments and make sure they get where they are supposed to get. I can’t stress that enough.”

Stay in your network

One of the major ways insured patients wind up with unmanageable medical bills is through services rendered – often unbeknown to the patient – by out-of-network providers, according to Kevin Haney, president of A.S.K. Benefit Solutions.

“You check into an in-network hospital and think you’re covered, but while you’re there, you’re treated by an out-of-network specialist such as an anesthesiologist, and then your coverage isn’t nearly as good,” Haney says. “The medical industry does a poor job of explaining this, and it’s where many people get hurt.”

According to Haney, if you were unknowingly treated by an out-of-network provider, it’s not unreasonable to contact the provider and ask them to bill you at their in-network rate.

“You can push back on lack of disclosure and negotiate,” Haney says. “They’re accepting much lower amounts for the same service with their in-network patients. They may do the same for you.”

Work it out with your provider BEFORE your bills are sent to collections

Even if you’re insured and are diligent about staying in-network, medical bills can still become untenable. Whether on account of a high deductible or an even higher out-of-pocket maximum, patients both insured and uninsured encounter medical bills they simply can’t afford to pay.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s critical to understand that health care providers themselves usually do not report unpaid bills to the credit bureaus – collection agencies do. After a certain period of time, most health care providers turn unpaid debt over to a collection agency, and it’s the agency that in turn reports the debt to the credit bureaus should it remain unpaid.

“If you can keep it out of the hands of the collectors, you can usually keep it off your credit report,” says Hathaway.

The key then is to be proactive about working out an arrangement with your health care provider before the debt is ever sent to a collection agency. And make no mistake – most providers are more than happy to work with you, according to Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.

“Trust me, no one involved with medical debt wants it to go nuclear,” says Dvorkin. “The health care providers you owe know very well how crushing medical debt is. They want to work with you, but they also need to get paid.”

If you receive a bill you can’t afford to pay in its entirety, you should immediately call your provider and negotiate, says Haney.

“Most providers, if the bill is large, will recognize there’s a good chance you don’t have the money to pay it off all at once, and most of the time, they’ll work with you,” he says. “But you have to be proactive about it. Don’t just hope it will go away. Call them immediately, explain your situation, and ask for a payment plan.”

If the bill you’re struggling with is from a hospital, you may also have the option to apply for financial aid, according to Thomas Nitzsche, a financial educator with Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a personal finance counseling firm.

“Most hospitals are required to offer financial aid,” says Nitzsche. “They’ll look at your financials to determine your need, and even if you’re denied, just the act of applying usually extends the window within which you have to pay that bill.”

If all else fails, negotiate with the collection agency

In the event that your debt is passed along to a collection agency, all is not immediately lost, says Sykstus.

“You can usually negotiate with the collection agency the same as you would with the provider,” he says. “Tell them you’ll work out a payment plan and that in return you’re asking them to not report it.”

Most collection agencies, according to Haney, actually have little interest in reporting debt to the credit bureaus.

“Think about it,” Haney says. “The best leverage they have to get you to pay is to threaten to report the bill to the credit agencies. That means as soon as they report it, they’ve lost their leverage. So, they’re going to want to talk to you long before they ever report it to the bureau. Don’t duck their calls. Talk to them and offer to work something out. They’ll usually take what they can get.”

At the end of the day, according to Haney, most people can keep medical debt from ruining their credit by following one simple rule.

“Just be proactive,” he says.

The post 3 Ways to Keep Medical Debt from Ruining Your Credit appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Three Brain Surgeries Can’t Keep Cancer Patient From Son’s Birth

man-with-cancer-at-birth-of-son

Cagney Wenk and his fianceé, Jessica Li, recently welcomed their son, Levon Robbie Wenk, into the world. It wasn’t all joy for the new family, however. Cagney had been recently diagnosed with inoperable, stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Already hospitalized and with three surgeries already performed, Cagney was still determined to be at his son’s birth. His nurses helped make that not only possible, but even threw in something extra special.

So on Sept. 18, when Cagney made his way from the intensive care unit at Boulder Community Hospital to the delivery room — along with his nurse and all his medical equipment — a videographer also arrived to document the occasion. Cagney’s nurses contacted Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep ― an organization that provides remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby ― to take photos of Cagney, Jessica and Levon, according to the photographer and videographer, Sarah Boccolucci, who captured the moments.

Cagney’s tears of joy as he hears his son’s cries for the first time are incredibly moving (it’s only fair to warn you that the video below will likely move you to tears).

Because Cagney is no longer able to work, the family is struggling with hospital bills. They started a donation page on GiveForward.com in hopes of raising $50,000 to help them pay the bills and for daily necessities.

Americans Still Struggle With Medical Debt

Despite national health reform, healthcare costs continue to threaten financial stability for millions of American families. There are various consequences that result from unaffordable healthcare costs. Some people simply forego recommended medical treatment because they can’t afford it. This holds true for both insured and uninsured patients. But there are also financial consequences.

A Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey earlier this year found that a majority (58%) of Americans with medical bill problems report they were contacted by a collection agency for unpaid medical bills. These collection accounts can seriously affect consumer credit scores. (You can see if a collection account is affecting your credit by getting your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com or by reviewing two of your credit scores for free every 14 days on Credit.com.)

Of even greater concern are the strategies used by people to address their medical bills. Six in ten (59%) of those with medical bill problems used all or most of their savings trying to pay these bills, about one-third (34%) took on credit card debt to do so, and about a quarter (26%) withdrew funds from a retirement or college account in order to pay.

Image: Sarah Boccolucci Photography

The post Three Brain Surgeries Can’t Keep Cancer Patient From Son’s Birth appeared first on Credit.com.

Want to Buy & Forgive Debt Like John Oliver? Not So Fast

When John Oliver announced Sunday night that he’d purchased medical debts as a faux collector and forgiven those debts, the Last Week Tonight host’s actions led to a serious question: Couldn’t this strategy be used on a wide scale? After all, Oliver managed to forgive about $15 million in debt for only $60,000.

It’s a clever idea that has its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Back in 2012, a group calling itself Rolling Jubilee began doing precisely the same thing. It raised money to purchase debts, then told the debtors their bills were forgiven.

While Rolling Jubilee initially focused on medical debt, as Oliver did, the organization now focuses on student loan debt. It claims to have abolished nearly $32 million in debt and raised $700,000.

Oliver actually executed the debt forgiveness by transferring the “paper” to a non-profit named RIPMedicalDebt.org, which was set up to mimic Rolling Jubilee’s strategy, according to the site.

But debt forgiveness using this strategy raises many questions. Chief among them: As Oliver said, his $15 million “giveaway” was really just a drop in the bucket. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says that 43 million Americans have an unpaid medical bill on their credit reports. That means Last Week Tonight would have to do roughly 4,777 more episodes to help all those folks.

The Impact on Credit Scores

Debt-buying-and-forgiveness highlights some other interesting issues. As many Credit.com readers know, the real pain from an unpaid bill isn’t necessarily harassment by a debt collector. It’s often the credit score punishment that follows, which can force a consumer out of typical market transactions. Low credit scores can prevent a consumer from buying a home, a car, or even from getting a credit card.

It’s impossible to say what impact this kind of debt forgiveness would have on an individual consumer’s score — scores are calculated using multiple personal factors. But generally we know that when a debt is marked as settled, or anything other than paid in full, that’s very bad for a score. The negative impact shrinks over time, but it can last seven years. According to this chart from FICO, a settled debt can cause up to a 100-point credit score drop.

We know that the debt Oliver purchased was described on the show as “out-of-state medical debt from Texas,” meaning it was older than that state’s statute of limitations for collection — which in Texas is four years. In that case, the impact from the four-year-old-plus debts may be low, but in many cases, it will still hurt those consumers, even after their debt was “forgiven.”

There’s another silver lining about the debt Oliver purchased: Newer formulas used for credit scores, including FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0, treat medical debts differently, so that should help some of these consumers, too. Those formulas are slowly making their way through the credit industry.

“Assuming that Mr. Oliver’s debt purchasing company reported these debts as consumer accounts to the credit bureaus, and then updated the accounts to reflect that the debts were ‘satisfied’ (for example, that the outstanding balance was zero), then there could potentially be a positive impact on the FICO Score 9 score,” Ethan Dornhelm, principal scientist at FICO, said in an email. “FICO Score 9 ignores paid collection agency accounts, and it takes a sophisticated approach to differentiating medical from non-medical collection agency accounts. This helps ensure that medical collections have a lower impact on the FICO Score, commensurate with the credit risk they represent.”

But it bears repeating: A forgiven debt does not mean there are no consequences for failing to pay the debt.

Paying Old Debt

The fact that debt-purchases-for-forgiveness often involve out-of-statute debt raises interesting questions as well. Generally, consumers have no legal obligation pay such debt. (The statute of limitations timeframe varies by state.) That’s why it is the “cheapest” form of debt for buyers (including Oliver and Jubilee) to buy. When debt buyers try to collect on it, it’s often called zombie debt, and many consumers are tricked into paying when they don’t have to.

Even a small payment towards the debt restarts the statute of limitations, so any consumer who receives a collector call should immediately identify the age of the debt and the applicable statute of limitations.

When Oliver purchased such debt, he was paying a collector who had no right to collect on it. Rainbow Jubilee faced criticism for making such payments, too, which could be seen as helping fund collectors’ illegitimate activity. And the “relief” offered to indebted consumers was already guaranteed by law.

The Tax Implications

Generally, when a debtor forgives a consumers’ debt — say, through debt settlement — the amount of forgiveness is considered income by the IRS. It can be a real kick in the teeth to consumers, who obviously are in no position to pay income tax on the amount they couldn’t pay to a debt collector. But for now, this is the law.

This is sometimes referred to as the 1099-C problem. Financial institutions must issue 1099-C forms to consumers any time they agree to accept at least $600 less than they are owed, and consumers must “claim” that amount on their tax returns.

When Rainbow Jubilee began its debt purchases, the organization said it had consulted with the IRS and was told there was no 1099-C problem. At the time, not everyone agreed. Writing on the blog NakedCapitalism.com, Yves Smith argued that many complex tax issues aren’t settled with the IRS until it makes a formal ruling, and any issues with this kind of novel debt forgiveness were unclear.

While a non-profit may not be required to issue a 1099-C for the “gift” of debt forgiveness, it’s still possible that recipients would have to declare the amount as income. Smith wasn’t saying these consumers had a tax problem, she was merely questioning Jubilee’s certainty that they wouldn’t have one.

On his show, Oliver said that RIPMedicalDebt specialized in debt forgiveness “with no tax consequences.” It is unclear how, however. The organization’s website doesn’t seem to address it. A phone call and an email to the organization were not immediately returned. (That’s not necessarily suspicious — the non-profit’s website was down Monday afternoon, no doubt because it was flooded with traffic in the aftermath of Oliver’s segment). Attempts to reach Rainbow Jubilee have been unsuccessful.

An email to Yves Smith about the issue has also gone unanswered. It’s worth noting that we were unable to find any complaints about unexpected tax issues for recipients of this kind of debt forgiveness.

Can’t Target the Benefit 

It’s also worth noting that while buying up debt for pennies on the dollar and forgiving it is definitely good news for the beneficiary, it would be very hard to “target” such debt relief to a particular person. You can’t buy a specific individual’s sold-off debt, for example. The purchases generally involve large spreadsheets with thousands of consumers’ personal information; a good amount of luck would be involved in buying a set of debts that includes a particular person you might be trying to help.

Still, Oliver’s show highlighted many of the absurdities of debt collection, and the alarming practices of some collectors – a subject we’ve covered extensively in the Credit.com Debt Collection Files.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Halfpoint

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