Dear Bankruptcy Adviser,
I have been disputing a charge on a credit card. It has now been charged off and I am being threatened by a collection attorney. I still want justice on the original creditor for what I think is breach of contract. How long do I have to file a lawsuit on them? And can the collection attorney do anything to me even though I am pursing a lawsuit with the original creditor?
— Bernard

Dear Bernard,
It’s important that consumers take a stand when they feel they’ve been wronged. Part of getting a good result, however, is knowing when to ask for help. In this case, you are heading for numerous battles on different fronts, all of which would benefit greatly from working with an attorney.

First, you’ll be defending yourself from a collection attorney. The fact that you’re pursuing a lawsuit doesn’t affect this particular battle — unless you win. At that time the collection attorney won’t have a case. Prior to that time, however, you’re probably going to get a lot of annoying phone calls. If you retain counsel, all collection inquiries can be filtered through your attorney.

Let’s suppose you take the calls, however. You’ll be asking the collections attorney for a validation of the charges you are contesting. However, you aren’t likely to get the kind of cooperation you deserve. You may experience frustrating delays and other stonewalling tactics that border on the illegal, but aren’t punishable by law (a common collections strategy is upsetting you until you agree to pay the debt out of sheer frustration). Evidence on paper is critical in persuading a judge or any of the credit bureaus, and a lawyer will have a much easier time getting these documents for you. Threats and negotiating tactics from a licensed attorney simply carry more weight. That’s not fair, I know, it’s just how the legal process has made attorneys valuable and sometimes essential.

Second, you’ll be suing the original creditor for breach of contract. This is a lot more complicated than you might think. You’ll need to be conversant with the specific laws and regulations you contend have been breached and have documentation to support those specific claims. Additionally, the statute of limitations will vary depending on your state and the nature of your claim. A lawyer in your state should know the relevant statutes — and if they don’t, find a new lawyer!

Finally, let’s suppose that one way or another you actually win your lawsuit. This is just the beginning. You still have negative marks on your credit until you send certified letters (with appropriate appended documentation) to all three credit bureaus — as well as to the original creditor — and receive documentation in return saying that the marks have been removed. Again, this can be a long process that relies a lot on getting people to take your phone calls, call you back and actually assemble paperwork for you instead of putting your complaints on their back burner.

In short, I applaud your willingness to protect your own interests, and the best advice I can give you is to see a qualified professional ASAP. On the one hand, hiring an attorney costs money. On the other, your time is valuable, and when you need your good credit, such as when getting a loan, that’s got a financial advantage as well. An attorney will know the relevant laws and can cut through the delaying tactics commonly used by your opposition. After all, you don’t want to have a year or two of having bad credit while you pursue a lawsuit and avoid a collections attorney before you even get to have the wild and wacky time of persuading three credit bureaus to restore your credit. Keep fighting the good fight — just don’t do it alone.