credit cards

$100,000 in credit card debt haunts expat

Janna HerronDear Credit Card Adviser,
I had many credit cards, and one day I decided to withdraw all the cash I could from these cards (let's say in the amount of $100,000). Yes, it was $100,000, and I moved out of the country. I am an American living overseas for the past five years and my last visit to the U.S. was in 2008.

My question is: I am planning on visiting my state (Oklahoma), but I am worried that there might be a warrant for my arrest in New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport or something like that. Should I be worried about this?
-- Ross

Dear Ross,
Talk about pulling off a huge credit card heist. But the matter is still a civil one and not criminal. So, there won't be any feds waiting for you in the airport to welcome you home, a la "The Godfather: Part II."

If you plan to return to the U.S. permanently, your journey to financial stability will be rocky if you haven't made any payments on your credit card debt during your expat days. Your first step is to get your credit report from the three major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- to find out the status of your accounts.

Every American is entitled to a free report from each of the three bureaus every 12 months. Get yours at AnnualCreditReport.com.

I'm willing to bet that most of your accounts have been charged off by the original credit card issuer, given that so much time has passed since your last activity. It's highly likely that the issuer sold off the account to a third-party debt collector. It's equally likely that your credit card debt has been resold multiple times to other third-party debt collectors, says Bruce McClary, director of media relations at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Services in Seattle and a former debt collector.

"It will be like playing 'connect the dots' on your credit report to figure out where each account stands," McClary says.

You may find there are judgments against you. You'll also see that you owe a lot more than the original $100,000. Penalty fees and interest will have accrued before the issuer wrote off the account. Your credit will be in the toilet.

Here are your choices: Contact the collectors directly to work out a payment plan or hope they don't find you. If they realize you're stateside, they will hound you for payment, while some may be able to garnish wages or attach a lien to a savings account and/or other assets, depending on state laws.

McClary says you've got the upper hand in negotiating a debt settlement because you have been unreachable for so long. He recommends that you review the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to know your rights.

At this point, you're probably thinking it may be better to lay low abroad and return after the statute of limitations on the debt expires, and the accounts fall off your credit report. Depending on the state and debt, the statute of limitations ranges from three years to 10 years from the date of last activity. Negative information on your credit reports drops off after seven years.

You will end up with a blank credit report. It will take several years to build up a positive credit history and earn a good credit score. This is important because your credit affects interest rates on loans, premiums on property and auto insurance, security deposits for utilities or rentals and possibly employment.

And while creditors won't be able to see your credit card shenanigans on your credit report after seven years, some of your previous issuers may practically blackball you from getting credit at their institution. Once bitten, twice shy.

Good luck.

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