Has an unpaid or forgotten bill gone into collection?

Don’t panic.

When dealing with debt collectors, you have plenty of rights, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Here are six things to know when a third-party debt collector contacts you.

Get the information in writing. Within five days of contacting you, a collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount of money you owe, the name of the creditor and what action to take if you believe you don’t owe the money, according to the debt collection act.

So before engaging in chitchat with a debt collector, ask him or her to send you the information in writing.

If you don’t believe you owe the money, dispute the debt in writing. If you send the collection agency a letter within 30 days of receiving the written notice stating you do not owe money, a debt collector cannot contact you. Make sure you keep a copy of the letter as part of a paper trail on your debt, says Gerri Detweiler, the Sarasota, Fla.-based co-author of “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights.”

Further, your response to the collector should be sent by certified mail. “You must send certified,” says Jeffrey Suher, a consumer attorney in Pittsburgh specializing in debt collection cases. “Otherwise, they’ll deny receiving it.”

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives the collector some rights, too. A debt collection firm can renew collection activities if it provides you with proof of the debt, such as a copy of the bill you owe.

Keep records of phone calls and messages. Keep a file with notes from phone conversations and copies of all written correspondence to and from the collector.

Write down the day and time of every collection call, the collection agency’s name, the amount it says you owe and a summary of the conversation, Detweiler says.

“That paper trail could be essential if it turns out the debt collector breaks the law,” says Detweiler.

Suher says you’ll also want to hang on to any voice mail from debt collectors.

Debt collectors have many restrictions. When it comes to collection calls, the debt collection act says there is much that collectors cannot say or do, including:

  • Using abusive or obscene language.
  • Harassing you with repeated calls.
  • Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you agree.
  • Calling you at work if you have asked them to stop.
  • Talking to anyone but you or your attorney about the debt.
  • Misrepresenting the amount of your debt.
  • Falsely claiming to be an attorney or a law enforcement official.
  • Falsely claiming to be a credit bureau representative.
  • Threatening to sue unless they actually plan to take legal action.
  • Threatening to garnish wages or seize property unless they actually intend to do it.

Say little and stand firm. What should you say when a debt collector calls? Keep the conversation as short as possible.

“They’re interviewing you. They’re interrogating you. They’re trying to determine if you have the capacity to pay,” says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for San Francisco-based Credit.com. “Say as little as possible.”

And stay focused and calm, no matter what a debt collector may say. “Stick with the facts,” Detweiler says. “Be a broken record.”

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Times are tight and debt collectors are looking for whatever payments they can get. There is a good chance you can work out a deal to pay less than the full amount.

“Start right out of the gate offering 10 percent to 15 percent of what they say you owe,” Ulzheimer says. “Then, probably settle somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent to 50 percent.”

Detweiler says before you pay, be sure to get details of the deal sent to you in writing. Once you’ve gotten written confirmation of the agreement, you can send your payment. Be sure to pay with a cashier’s check rather than a personal check.

“Do not under any circumstances provide debt collectors with access to your bank account,” Suher says.

Another negotiation strategy is to offer a debt collector a payment-for-deletion deal. You agree to pay a debt collector the full payment and the debt collector agrees to remove the collection account from your credit report. The debt collector would contact the credit bureaus directly to remove the debt, Detweiler says.

According to the Federal Trade Commission and the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, this practice is not illegal but it is frowned upon by credit reporting agencies. Many debt collectors may refuse to do it.

“If you’re lucky enough to get a debt collector to agree to a pay-for-deletion (deal), get it in writing in advance,” Detweiler says.

A payment-for-deletion deal is one strategy for coping with an accurate bill that was lost or forgotten but is now in collection. Getting a collection account removed from your credit report should give a big boost to your credit rating.

“If there’s a legitimate excuse, I encourage consumers to push back hard to try to get them deleted,” Detweiler says. “These deals are worked out.”

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