Q&A: How to deal with debt collectors

Dear Liz: After struggling financially for seven years, I’m getting a good lawsuit settlement. After taxes, I’ll be set. I want to pay my bills but to the actual company — for example, the credit card company, not some bill-collecting clowns that threatened me with “the sheriff will come over and arrest you” or “your brother and sister will inherit your debt” and other lies.

I also don’t want to pay these inflated fees from bill collectors that have no rhyme or reason and sound like they are throwing darts at numbers board.

Finally, I’ve asked a couple of the bill collectors to provide me with the name and contact at the original company so I can verify that they have authorization. But with data being compromised every day, how do I know they are legit?’

Answer: You typically don’t have the option to pay the original creditor once a debt collector enters the scene. Chances are good the original creditor long ago wrote off the debt as a loss and sold it, often for pennies on the dollar. You’ll know the bill is in the hands of a debt buyer if you check your credit reports and the original creditor shows the amount owed as zero, said Michael Bovee, president of Consumer Recovery Network, a debt relief company.

You’re right to be concerned about paying the right party — not because of database breaches but because of the lousy records and bad practices that plague the debt collection industry. The same debt may be sold to multiple buyers or come with so little identifying information that it’s unclear who originally owed what to whom.

Before you pay any debt, you should ask in writing for it to be verified. By law, debt collectors must provide you with the name of the creditor, the amount owed and how you can dispute the debt or seek further verification. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers sample letters on its site, www.consumerfinance.gov.

The CFPB also accepts and investigates complaints about collection agencies, such as those who violate the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by harassing people or falsely threatening to arrest them (you typically can’t be arrested for debt).

It’s understandable that you don’t want to deal with a rogue collector or an unethical collection agency. If the debt is beyond your state’s statute of limitations and you can’t be sued over it, then there’s little reason to open negotiations with such bad actors. They could renege on any deal they make with you and simply sell the debt to someone else, starting the whole circus over again.

If you must resolve the debt — you typically can’t get a home loan, for example, if you have open collection accounts showing on your credit reports — then you should call the original creditor and verify which company bought the debt. If the debt wasn’t sold but assigned to a collection agency, get the name of that firm. Then you can call and negotiate payoffs low enough to offset any fees or interest that have accumulated, Bovee said. But do so before you apply for the loan and don’t let the collectors know you need to clean up your credit, since that weakens your bargaining position.

You’ll want to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible before you contact any collection agency. You can download a free e-book at DebtCollectionAnswers.com, a site run by consumer advocate Gerri Detweiler, that can help you get started.

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