Zombie debts that just won’t die. Judgments that haunt you for years, or decades even. Tax liens that block you from buying a home or financing a car. Medical debts that seem to come at you from all sides. Student loans that follow you to the grave.
While these scenarios may sound as overblown as the buildup to a horror flick, for the consumers who are dealing with them, they are very real. And very scary.
If you’re haunted by bad credit, you may feel helpless. But there are almost always ways to fight back. Here are five of them:
1. Face Your Fears
In every scary movie, someone walks straight into danger: the basement, the attic or the dark woods. While we think they are idiots for walking straight into a trap, the person who is being targeted by whatever evil lurks there feels there is no other choice. They know they can’t simply run and hide.
If you’re dealing with credit problems, you have to face your worst fears if you hope to make them go away. That means you may have to pick up the phone and talk to that debt collector or credit card company, for example. And you’ll definitely need to get your free credit reports and check your free credit score to assess the damage. When you do, you may be surprised to find it’s not as bad as you thought.
In Season 3 of “The Walking Dead,” Rick and the Governor negotiate to end hostilities if Michonne is handed over. But the Governor isn’t negotiating in good faith. Instead, he plans a slaughter after she is turned over. His plot is foiled, and Michonne escapes.
While negotiating with someone who doesn’t plan to keep up their end of the deal is a losing proposition, when it comes to your debts, many companies will be happy to work something out. They want to get paid, and they know that many of the clients with past-due debts can only do so much.
If you can’t afford to pay off those unpaid debts that are keeping you up at night, talk to the collector or creditor about a payment plan, or a lump-sum settlement for less than the full balance.
Just be sure to get the terms of the deal in writing to prevent any “misunderstandings” later. You don’t want to hear months — or years — later about a debt you thought had been resolved.
3. Strike Back
Everyone knows the way to stop a vampire is by driving a wooden stake through their heart. In “The Vampire Diaries,” it’s a little more complicated; it takes a stake from a white oak to kill an Original.
When it comes to your debts, federal law provides for specific ways to stop collection actions. You can dispute the debt and request verification, and the collector must investigate and respond before resuming collection. You can remind collection agents that the statute of limitations has expired, if you believe the debt is too old. Or you can send a collector a “cease contact letter” at any time and they must stop contacting you, except to notify you of legal action they will be taking. (If you are dealing with an overseas scam collector, legitimate tactics won’t work, so you may have to get creative and try harassing them the way they do consumers.)
4. Wait It Out
The “newborns” in Twilight are bloodthirsty young vampires who wreak havoc until they mature and learn to control themselves. (Some do this better than others.) If they abstain from human blood, eventually their eyes become honey-gold and they can blend into society.
The first few years after financial problems, your credit scores will be a wreck and you may worry that you will never be part of the credit mainstream again. But over time, it does get better. As negative information gets older, it will have less of an impact on your scores, provided you pay all your bills on time going forward, and avoid the temptation of running up debt you can’t handle.
Eventually, all negative items will cease to be reported and you’ll have a fresh start. This usually takes seven to 10 years, though certain information such as unpaid tax liens or judgments can be reported longer than that.
5. Use the Ultimate Weapon
The Elder Wand in the Harry Potter books is believed to be the most powerful wand in existence. When used by its true master, it is said that he or she cannot be defeated .
In the world of debt, bankruptcy is the ultimate weapon. It can wipe out debts, stop collectors in their tracks and can even force some creditors — such as lenders on underwater mortgages — to negotiate. For millions of people, it is the tool that allowed them to get back on their feet financially.