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The doorbell ringing around the holidays can often be a welcome sound: It could mean a neighbor is dropping off a plate of cookies or a gift is being delivered. But if you are in default on a debt, it could mean another type of delivery: a notice that you are being sued. Process servers, the folks who deliver these notices, often know that consumers are more receptive to opening their doors this time of year, and as a result may step up their delivery schedules.

If you’re worried about being sued for a debt, what should you know about process servers — the people who deliver legal papers — and the packages they deliver? I spoke with two professionals who have been doing this type of work for years to help consumers understand this part of the legal process.

Niall Cronnolly is president of Eagle Investigative Services. He’s a licensed private investigator and his firm currently operates in four states:  Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. Dusty R. Lefdal is the owner of Employer’s Investigative Services in California.

We’re Just the Messengers

Consumers often get upset with process servers because they mistakenly believe the person standing in front of them is taking legal action against them. But the servers aren’t, and getting angry with them makes just about as much sense as getting mad at your postal carrier for delivering your credit card bill. In fact, it’s likely the person at your doorstep knows nothing about the reason you are being served.

“We don’t have the case file,” says Lefdal. “We don’t know if you are a witness (to a case), we don’t know if you are a petitioner.“ In fact, Cronnolly says that before serving someone, he must sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that he doesn’t know the person he is serving.

While Lefdal hasn’t had any harrowing encounters with the folks he’s tried to serve, Cronnolly has:  “We’ve been chased with shovels, shotguns, you name it.”

Avoiding Us Won’t Work

If you’re trying to avoid bad news, you may be tempted to lie to the person on your doorstep and pretend you are someone else. It doesn’t make sense to dodge service, however, because there are usually alternative methods available. “Depending on the type of lawsuit we may be able to serve you by mail, by posting or by public notice, which means it goes in a newspaper,” says Lefdal.  Another option, depending on the jurisdiction, may be to drop the paperwork in the general direction of the person that is being served, says Connolly, or in some cases to “slip it under the door.” If we have to, “we can serve them at church,” he adds.

You Probably Won’t Know We’re Coming

It’s unlikely process servers will call you in advance to let you know they are coming. This is an important point because some scam debt collectors will threaten consumers, saying that if they don’t pay a debt immediately they will be served with a lawsuit that day at work, for example. Their goal is to scare a consumer into paying on the spot.

“We would never call you,” says Cronnolly. Lefdal says it would be unusual for him to do so, though it does sometimes happen. “I have personally called someone we were looking to serve because there was no other way to do it,” he says. And when he serves businesses, he prefers to let them know he is coming; as a business owner himself he said he wouldn’t want to “be surprised by something like that.” Nevertheless, neither of them attempt to exact payments from consumers; they are simply trying to deliver the legal paperwork they have been hired to convey.

What to Do If You’re Served

Believe it or not, you want to know you are being served in a credit card or debt collection lawsuit. If you don’t, the lawsuit may proceed without you, and you may face worse consequences.

Read the information you receive carefully. If you don’t understand it — and there’s a good chance you may not — talk with a consumer law attorney. Most will provide a free or low-cost consultation and they can help you understand your options, or you may be eligible for free help through a local legal aid clinic. You may have a defense against the lawsuit that could result in it being dropped altogether, you may be able to negotiate a settlement outside of court, or you may need to consider filing for bankruptcy.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. If you fail to show up in court, the creditor may get a default judgment which will cause significant damage to your credit reports and credit scores. (You can get your totally free credit score once a month at Credit.com.) A judgment may also allow a creditor to seize your bank account or garnish your wages, depending on the laws in your state.

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