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The 7 Biggest Questions About Debt Collections & Your Credit

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The experts at Credit.com frequently receive questions from readers about how a debt that goes into collection affects their credit. After all, the path that an unpaid debt makes after it goes to collection can be long.

Here are some of the most common questions, and their answers, to provide collections-burdened consumers with some facts to combat some of the myths that abound when it comes to debt collection and credit scores.

1. Is a paid collection better for your score than an unpaid collection?

The answer is no, which could be surprising to some. However, resolving a collection provides other benefits, such as preventing the debt from being sold to another collections agency that could place another collection on your report, or lead to a lawsuit resulting in a judgment — both of which could drive your score down even further.

2. Are medical collections excluded from credit scores?

Not when it comes to FICO scores, the scores most widely used by the credit industry. Many experts, including Credit.com’s Director of Consumer Education Gerri Detweiler, and other advocates for the Medical Debt Responsibility Act argue that medical debt is different from other forms of debt, as it is often beyond the consumer’s control, can knock more than 100 points off of a credit score, and can remain on your credit report for seven years. The legislation would erase medical debts from credit reports within 45 days of being settled or paid. Supporters of the current practice, such as the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents the national consumer reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — express concern over the removal of “predictive” data, such as medical debt, from credit reports.

3. Are multiple collections on a credit report worse for your score than a single collection?

Not necessarily. The most important factors that affect how collections impact credit scores are those that look at how recently the collection occurred. As a result, you could, for example, be fortunate enough to get one of two collection debts removed from your credit report, yet see no score improvement if the remaining collection is the more recent of the two.

4. Does the amount of the collection debt matter?

Not at all, if the lender is using an older version of FICO — which is most likely, since the older models continue to be most widely used by lenders. Even if the newer versions are being used, the amount won’t matter if the debt is more than $100. The latest versions of FICO (FICO 8) that are increasingly being adopted by lenders, exclude collections of $100 or less. Nevertheless, whether being scored by the old or new FICO formula, consumers will see no scoring difference between collections (of the same vintage) having a $150 or $150,000 balance, nor will it matter if the debt is for a parking ticket or emergency medical procedure.

5. Will paying off a collection have the opposite effect and actually lower your score?

It is a commonly held belief — even taking on “urban myth” proportions at times — particularly among many in the mortgage industry, that when collections are paid scores go down. The claim is that when updated from “unpaid” to “paid,” the collection can appear to the scoring formula as having originated more recently than it did, which, if true, could lower the score. However, the “assigned” date on the credit report doesn’t change when the collection status is updated, nor do the credit scoring formulas give fewer points for a paid than an unpaid collection. So there is no evidence to support the myth that paying a collection can lower a score.

6. Will settling a collection impact my score?

No. Since, as we’ve learned, neither the dollar amount of a collection nor the paid vs. unpaid status has any bearing on the score, there’s no scoring impact from settling the debt. As in our first example above, the benefit of resolving the debt in this way lies with the prevention of further damage to your credit.

7. Will the removal of a collection raise my score?

It could, but there’s no guarantee. Because the length of time since the debt was assigned to a collection agency weighs so heavily on a credit score, the removal of the most recent collections can often be expected to raise a score. On the other hand, if there are multiple collections and it’s the older ones that you’re able to get removed, such as via a “pay for delete,” you may not see any improvement in your score following the removal of these older collections.

Collections can happen to anyone, whether you’re already managing your credit responsibly or have hit hard times financially. Separating the facts from the fallacies about collections and credit scores can help you make more of the right moves, and avoid some of the bad ones that can have an undesirable result. One way to check on the impact a collection might be having on your credit is to obtain your free Credit Report Card from Credit.com or pull a free annual credit report you’re entitled to by law.

Image: iStockphoto

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  • Margaret Marquez

    Credit scores are not free they always want a credit or debit card # for a 1.00 and you have so long before they bill your card full amount so why tell people its free.

    • Barry Paperno

      Hi Margaret,
      You’re right that getting “free” credit scores often require a credit card, particularly when they’re part of a free trial offer that you have to cancel prior to being charged. However, the Credit Report Card from Credit.com, that includes a free credit score, is truly free.

      We don’t require a credit card and are unable to charge you even if we wanted to! If you haven’t tried ordering yours yet, you might want to give it a try right here: https://www.credit.com/free-credit-score/

      -Barry

      • Barbara

        Thanks, Barry, b/c I just assumed credit.com would be the same. To those who give the CC # for one thing and then get billed every month, Ripped Off is a good place to go. I had this problem w/some makeup I ordered. The company would not stop the monthly payments. I went to Ripped Off and not only got the payments stopped, but got all my money back by going back to Ripped Off and taking away my negative comments, although I did leave a message to all to beware of the company before ordering.

        Barbara

    • Brian Skinner

      CAREFUL!!!! This happened to me! After the first $1 they start billing you every month for $29. Read all the little tiny boxes that are pre filled.

  • Florence Farr

    Hi I”ve found it very hard to get a copy of my own credit report, even after writing and requesing by mail with all my proper I. D. sent. My driver”s license denied for a renewal in Georgia after over fority plus years using the same name . Was told that was not my name , and refused a license . Had all required information , they still reqused a copy of my devoiced papers which was supposed to be over (40) forty years ago. Had to go to a different county and produce more info still They Put my first name, madien name, and my last name , charge me full price and gave me (30) thrity days to prove it even thou I sumitted all correst info. encluding my son”s death certificate, daugthers birth certificate. Crazy!!! Right?

    • http://www.credit.com Barry Paperno

      Hi Florence, Yes, that’s crazy! It’s hard to imagine anything other than ID theft is going on, with both the credit bureau and the DMV flagging your identity. I’d think you should be able to talk with someone at the credit bureau or DMV who can make some sense of things, and not just tell you to bring in more pieces of ID. Have you had this experience with all three of the credit bureaus?

  • Alyssa C.

    Hello, I recently (within the past month) paid off two credit card accounts that ended up in collections with the intent to fix my credit score by doing so. Now that I have read this, I feel foolish to have even paid them at all. How can I repair and build my credit score now? Since paying off my collection accounts would not help anyway.

    • http://www.credit.com Barry Paperno

      Hi Alyssa, You are far from foolish for paying that collection. By doing so you prevented at least a couple of things that could have either lowered your score or kept it low longer, or both, such as: 1) prevented the collection agency from selling it to another agency, which could have added another collection to your credit report; and 2) avoided being sued for the unpaid debt, which could have resulted in a judgment against you that would have also been added to your credit report, where it would remain for seven years from the filing date. Feeling better about having paid it now? As for rebuilding your score, I know it sounds trite, but keep any remaining active credit accounts current and keep the credit card balances down. Or, if you don’t have any active cards or loans, you may want to get a secured card, make small purchases, and pay it off each month – and on time, of course. Unfortunately, there truly are no quick fixes, but take some satisfaction in having done the all-important damage control. From here on out, as long as you do the above, your score should start climbing as the negatives on your credit report age and new positive history takes over. Good luck!

    • Brian Skinner

      Think about getting a secured CC. Keep the balance at 10% of the cards limit and in less than a year your score will go up. Think about doing it twice because multiple accounts count for a lot on your score. Better to have 2 Visa’s with a $300 limit than one with a $1,000 limit.

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  • K. Verner

    I recently received a notice from a collection company for a returned modem to AT&T that was never used. I paid my AT&T account in full and should be returned the balance of the unused portion of my bill when I canceled my service. An AT&T representative informed me that if the modem was sent back as return to sender, it is not processed by the sending facility but is instead logged in and re-sent to the next customer. AT&T and the collection company has refused to provide proof the MAC address for that modem has not or is not being used. This seems like double billing! I’m sure AT&T has sent this modem out and is being paid by another customer, while choosing to subtract the modem cost from my over-payment and requesting I pay the difference.
    How can I make AT&T verify this Modem was received by tracking it’s MAC address or hasn’t been sent to a new customer and refund my over-payment and remove the collection account?

    • Barry Paperno

      I seriously doubt you can require that AT&T provide proof that the modem is now being used by another customer. The simplified version of the issue appears to be that you are being required to show proof that your returned the modem, but are unable to provide that documentation.

      To resolve this situation while – most importantly, IMO – protecting your credit, it would be good to know 1) the amount they are essentially charging you (or refusing to refund) for the modem, and 2) whether or not the collection agency has reported the debt to any of the credit bureaus.

      While it’s clearly not fair for you to pay for something you didn’t use and returned, again if I were you I would be most concerned with any potential credit damage from this debt going to collections.

      While you haven’t stated the amount their asking for, I’m going to guess that it’s not enough to sacrifice your credit for the next 7 years, which is how long a collection can remain on your credit report – even after being paid.

      Assuming you can’t document the return of the modem, I would suggest either paying what they’re asking, or offering to settle the with them for less than the full amount, in exchange for their written assurance that it will not be reported to the credit bureaus. Or if it has already been reported, try and get them to remove it in exchange for payment (pay for delete). In any of these situations, always get any agreements in writing and send any correspondence or payment via certified mail with a return receipt.

      I’m also going to guess that in the future you’ll want to make sure to follow closely the return instructions for anything you might be charged for, and save all documentation for situations like this where it’s your word against theirs. I hope you’re successful in getting this resolved without damaging your credit.

  • Leroy Cumbie

    I have a couple of items now in collection. One is a medical bill, in which I’d been paying on, yet turned over to collections. Second time this hospital has done this to me while paying.This collection agency has begun placing it over & over on my credit report. The other is a T-Mobile bill that was created by a “friend” who didn’t pay & thus all the charges quickly mounted up. That collection agency has slammed my credit report 3 times in March & so far twice in April. Each time they place it, it knocks my score down some more. How many times can they continue to do this? I think once on your report is enough. They do it with extreme malice, only to damage you as much as they can. What can be done about this? Do I need an attorney & file some sort of suit against them?

    • http://www.credit.com Barry Paperno

      Hi Leroy, I’m not sure what you mean by placing the collection “over and over” and being “slammed,” as collection items are not usually placed multiple times within a month, or at all. Having said that, though, multiple items can appear on a credit report for the same debt, despite the fact that you’re making payments, and it can be very frustrating – especially when you feel like you’re doing the right thing by not ignoring the debt.

      With the medical collection you’re paying on, I would suggest contacting the hospital to advise of the payments you’re making to the collection agency, as they may be unaware, and requesting they refrain from assigning the debt to other collection agencies since you’re paying one already. If you don’t get any satisfaction from the hospital, get your current credit report from the credit bureau(s) reporting the debt, and follow the instructions for disputing inaccurate information with the credit bureau.

      You didn’t say that you’ve been paying on the mobile debt, but if you are, following the same advice as for the medical debt should help to keep T-Mobile from assigning the debt to additional collection agencies. If you haven’t been paying the mobile bill, unfortunately the debt incurred by your “friend” is now yours, and you’ll need to consider resolving it by paying it yourself if your friend doesn’t come through.

      If your efforts toward resolving these debts continue to be unsuccessful, you may want to look into taking the various parties to small claims court. For some excellent advice for dealing with collection agencies, read Gerri Detweiler’s recent post: http://blog.credit.com/2013/04/debt_collectors_killing_your_credit/

      Good luck! -Barry

    • Brian Skinner

      The shuffling should not lower your score. Are you sure you don’t have a higher balance on CC’s? That would account for the lower score.

  • Annie

    Hi,
    I am about to close in a few months on a VA home loan. My lender preapproved me based on a credit score in the high 600′s and my flawless payment history over the last 3 years. About 6 years ago I had a very difficult time financially and had 5 accounts go into collections. My lender is saying that before my loans goes to the VA underwritter for final approval, I have to settle or pay off these 5 collection accounts. I am worried that my scores will take a hit and make me ineligable for VA financing. My lender is saying ask for a “pay for delete” letter as part of the settlement, so my scores will not go down. The seemed convinced that if I don’t get these removed, that once I pay, they accounts will show recent activity and thus hurt my scores. Are they right?

    • Credit.com

      Annie – Paying/settling a collection account won’t hurt your credit scores so it’s wise to go ahead and pay/settle if you can afford to do so. While paying a collection won’t hurt your score, it won’t improve it either. It’ll just update the account to show that it’s been “paid” or “settled.” As far as your credit scores are concerned, it’s the fact that the collection happened that counts and the date the account went into collection status (usually the 180 day late mark). When you pay the collection, the date the collection initially happened won’t change. Changing that date in order to “re-age” the collection is illegal and if a collector does this, they’ll be in direct violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act and can face legal action.

      Whenever you apply for a mortgage, no matter which lender you use, the lender will require that you address any outstanding collection accounts before they’ll approve and close on a loan. There is no difference between a paid collection and a collection “settled” for less so if you can negotiate a settlement, that’s your best route.

      Here are a few resources that you may find helpful:
      Does Your Old Debt Have an Expiration Date?
      The Dos and Don’ts of Paying a Debt Collector
      Will Paying a Collection Improve My Credit Score?
      The 7 Biggest Questions About Debt Collections & Your Credit

    • Brian Skinner

      I am a mortgage broker. Ask yours if the underwriters are so concerning why don’t they make it a “closing condition?” No paying or settling these old accounts won’t hurt your score. Congrats on having good credit again. High 600s is not great credit but you are considered “medium risk”. Good luck to you.

  • Wendy Fast

    Hi.
    I have been paying off an outstanding medical balance and the doctor’s office still sent it to a collection agent. I was paying the amount that had been agreed upon, yet they still sent it to collections. Now the collection agent is harassing me while I am still sending payments to the doctor. I don’t know what to do about this. The doctors office said they can’t do anything once its in collection, but I don’t believe that….and they take my check every month! I feel like I just can’t win.
    Any advice?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Wendy -

      You are correct. There is something the medical office can do about it. They can pull it back from collections. I wrote about that here: Reader Stops Mysterious Medical Bill From Damaging Her Credit. Let us know if that works!

    • http://consumerrecoverynetwork.com/ask-a-question/ Michael Bovee

      Wendy – Did you set up the monthly payment you are sending to the doctor’s office in advance, and with their approval on the amount? Was this a situation where you are taking the initiative to send in what you can afford each month?

      Post a comment reply and I can offer more feedback from there.

    • Brian Skinner

      The Dr would have had to SELL it to the collection agency! He has no right to accept payments on it/ If he does he must send them to the collection agency! It is now THEIR property. This Dr. runs a real shady operation.

  • desperately in need

    Being on disability and a limited income has put me in a credit card dilemma. Recently divorced and not able to receive anything I had to depend on credit cards to keep afloat in awaiting a lengthy disability hearing. Now I receive disability, finally.
    The problem is over the last two years I have had four major surgeries and incurred a great deal of medical bills, medication costs and copays for physical therapy for almost two years.
    with paying all of these medical/hospital/home care I have gone from being current to not being able to have enough for credit cards.
    also being eligible for food stamps they have a new system that has put them behind. I have not received any benefits since March. Which also has eaten into my money.
    At this point I don’t know if bankruptcy is my only way out. Instead of getting deeper with late charges and interest.

    do I file bankruptcy? I am afra

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  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    If it has been removed it shouldn’t be coming back without advance notice to you first. You can either talk with a consumer law attorney who handles credit report issues (the first consult will be free) or you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    Will you let me know what happens?

  • Audrey

    If you make an arrangement to pay off a debt – in this case its an “overpayment” from Social Security to the long term disability company (64K in just under 4 years at $1300+ per month) can the LTD carrier still send you to collections? I have a 780 credit score

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      I don’t know if those types of debts typically go to collections unfortunately. I haven’t heard of it but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

  • brant

    Hello,
    Can somebody please help me, I was preapproved for a home loan and all of a sudden got a claim against me for medical bills and im hoping to have them resolved before I buy and close on a home but does it hurt my credit eveb though I dont have a judgement out on me yet? Do I have to let my bank know about all of this and take the chance of loosing the home loan? Just dont exactly know what to do

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      What happened? You received a collection call or notice about medical bills?

  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    You can dispute it with the 3 credit-reporting agencies, and you can also submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Here’s information to help you get started:
    How Do I Dispute an Error in My Credit Report?
    A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes
    The Ultimate Guide to Debt Collectors

  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    If they ordered the parts without your son agreeing to the repair, you are probably not responsible for the bill.

  • http://consumerrecoverynetwork.com/ask-a-question/ Michael Bovee

    Verizon may not sue, but these cancellation fee debts often end up with debt collectors who do sue.

    You may be able to negotiate a lower pay off amount with the debt collector, say 300 hundred dollars. Can you pull that together?

  • Gary

    Hi, I have 8 grand worth of collections spread across 11 accounts. Obviously my score is on the low 500s. I have the cash to pay them all off but I want to do it in a way that helps my credit score so I can get a truck. How do I do it without hurting my credit more or just not helping it. Thanks.

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      Paying collection accounts isn’t likely to help (or hurt) your credit scores. You may be able to negotiate a “pay for delete” deal on a few, but it’s not likely to happen with all of them.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Maybe – depends on the lender’s policies, but many auto loan decisions are heavily score driven.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    What state do you live in?

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