Be careful when settling old debts

Dear Liz: I paid all of my old collection accounts except for two, which now are beyond the statute of limitations. I would like to find the best way to negotiate with the collection agencies without getting sued. Even though the original delinquency was over four years ago, the agencies are reporting these every month as current debt, which is really hurting my credit score. My intent is to offer a lump-sum settlement amount if they will remove the report from my credit file with the bureaus, or alternately in return for a “paid” notation on my report file. However, I cannot afford to pay the amount they say I owe.

Answer: If the collection agencies are simply reporting your debts each month with a correct “date of last activity” — usually the date you stopped paying the original creditor — your credit scores aren’t being hurt anew each month. If the agencies are reporting a new date of last activity each month, however, they are illegally re-aging your debts. You can dispute this illegal reporting with the credit bureaus and directly with the collection agencies. If the errors aren’t corrected, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which took over regulation of the major credit bureaus last year.

Filing disputes is not something you’d want to do if the debts are still within the statute of limitations, said Michael Bovee, president of Consumers Recovery Network, which specializes in debt settlement. You wouldn’t want to draw attention to yourself or your debts. But you run little risk in filing a dispute now since the debts are too old for the collectors to file a legitimate lawsuit.

Bovee said that simply contacting the agencies about the debts shouldn’t restart the statute of limitations, but debt expert Gerri Detweiler of Credit.com advised caution.

“It may be well worth it to consult a consumer law attorney,” Detweiler said. “Otherwise [you] may reset the clock on these debts and owe the entire amount plus interest.”

You can get referrals to consumer law attorneys at the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates, http://www.naca.net.

You don’t have to pay the reported debts in full to reach a settlement, Bovee and Detweiler agreed. Often the totals reported are inflated by interest and fees, and the collection agencies probably paid only pennies on the dollar to buy this debt.

Start by saying you have only so much money to work with and offer 20% to 30% of what the agency says you owe.

“A realistic expectation for negotiating a debt this old would be to settle the account for 50% or less than the current balance owed,” Bovee said. “If they raise objections, there is no problem in mentioning that you are aware that the debt is past the statute of limitations for you to be sued, but that you are just trying to do the right thing.”

Don’t say you’re trying to improve your credit, since that gives the collector leverage over you, Bovee said.

You can negotiate to have the collections deleted from your credit reports, but the original delinquencies and charge-offs will remain and will continue to affect your credit scores until they pass the seven-year mark.

Old debts don’t disappear

Dear Liz: I am astonished you would counsel someone to try to negotiate a settlement of credit card debts from 2003 that were written off in 2007. Why? The statute of limitations is no more than six years in California and can be much shorter in many other states. If a reader of your column begins to negotiate over debts that are that old, they risk creating a new debt or resurrecting the old one, thereby becoming liable for repayment of a debt that is not collectible. When there is a stale claim, the response to the collection agency needs to be: “This is a stale claim, the statute of limitations has expired. I do not owe this debt to you or to my original creditor. Please stop contacting me.”

Answer: Statutes of limitations limit how long a creditor is supposed to be able to sue a borrower in court. The statutes vary by state and the type of debt, but range from three to 15 years. The expiration of that limit doesn’t make the debt somehow disappear or prohibit a creditor from continuing collection efforts.

Many people feel a moral obligation to pay their debts when they can. Others want to negotiate to remove collections from their credit reports in return for payment. (Time limits for reporting negative items on credit reports are different from state statutes of limitations; in most cases, the limit is seven years and 180 days from the time the account first went delinquent.) If someone wants to get a mortgage, for example, a lender may require payment of an open collections account regardless of the state statute of limitations.

You’re correct that anyone who wants to negotiate a settlement of an old debt should be aware of the statute of limitations affecting that debt. If the limitation hasn’t passed, the borrower needs to be aware of the danger of getting sued. If the limitation has passed, the borrower needs to avoid restarting it by making a small payment. Instead, the best approach is to settle for a lump sum and to get the collector’s assurance, in advance and in writing, that the remaining debt will be forgiven rather than resold.

How to settle old debts

Dear Liz: I defaulted on my credit cards starting in 2003 because my business was failing. The last account was charged off in 2007. My business is now back and doing well, and I am expecting a nice little windfall in a couple of months. Should I pay these amounts I owe to the collection agencies that have been calling me, or should I contact and pay the creditors from which I obtained the credit cards?

Answer: You can try contacting the original creditors, but most likely they will refer you to the collection agencies. The original creditors have long since taken a tax deduction for their losses and sold the debts to those collectors, so they typically can’t accept payment for these accounts.

The collectors probably paid pennies on the dollar to buy your debts. The older the debt, the less they probably paid. Keep that in mind as you’re negotiating settlements of these debts, because you don’t have to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the collection agencies to realize a considerable profit.

As part of your negotiations, you’ll want to make sure to get the collector’s promise — in advance of any payment from you, and in writing — that it will not resell any unpaid portion of the debt. You may still face a tax liability on this unpaid debt, however, because debt forgiveness is typically considered taxable income.

You also should try to get the collector’s assurance — again, in advance and in writing — that it will stop reporting the collection accounts to the credit bureaus. This won’t eliminate the damage the unpaid debts are having on your credit scores, because the missed payments and charge-offs will remain on your credit reports for seven years and 180 days from when the accounts first went delinquent. But eliminating the collection accounts could boost your scores a bit.

Be aware that in many states, your debts are too old for creditors to sue you in court over them–unless you do something like make a partial payment that can restart the so-called statute of limitations. You can read up on how statutes of limitations work at sites such as DebtCollectionAnswers.com, and learn how to conduct such negotiations without inadvertently restarting the statute.