It’s a scenario we hear about from consumers all the time: You get a call from a debt collector. They say you owe them money for a long past-due bill, but when you pull your credit report, you can’t find any record of the account’s existence. Do you actually have to pay?
Well, the answer depends. Yes, debt collectors have been known to contact the wrong person regarding a balance due. And, yes, it’s also possible that a scammer is on the other end of the phone. But there’s also a chance you actually owe the debt and it just hasn’t made it’s way onto your credit report yet.
“If the debt is valid, then it is enforceable whether or not it appears on a credit report,” Troy Doucet, a consumer attorney in Columbus, Ohio, said in an email. “Appearing on the credit report certainly has greater implications for a person’s ability to get credit in the future, which is an extra reason to pay that obligation. However, whether or not it appears there does not affect its validity at all, or the ability for someone to sue over it.”
In other words, if the debt is yours, you are legally liable to pay it. And, if you don’t, you can be subject to adverse action, like a lawsuit, judgment and, perhaps ultimately, a wage garnishment. In fact, reporting the account to three major credit reporting agencies is one of the adverse actions collectors may take to get a debtor to agree to a repayment plan.
“If money is tight but someone wants to pay back their debts, it may make sense to focus on paying those that appear on the credit report first to improve their credit profile to lenders,” Doucet said. “But keep in mind that debts that do not currently appear on a report could in the future, especially if the debt is sold to a collection agency.”
What Do I Do When a Collector Calls?
You can attempt to determine the debt and the collector’s validity by asking for written verification. Debt collectors are actually required under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act to provide written notice listing the amount of money you owe and the name of the original creditor within five days of contacting you.
If you are liable for the debt, you may want to negotiate a payment plan with the collector to avoid adverse actions like the ones mentioned above. And, particularly if you’ve already been subjected to these adverse actions, you shouldn’t feel pressured to pay every penny that the collector is asking for, said Credit.com contributor Michael Bovee, the creator of the Consumer Recovery Network and a 20-year veteran of the debt and credit industry.
“You don’t get any brownie points for paying the full amount,” he said. “Try to settle for as best a savings as you can because the damage is done.”
Remember, too, while you may legally be responsible for the debt, there are laws restricting what firms can do to collect on it. For instance, they can’t call too early, too late or incessantly. If you are having trouble verifying a debt or you think a collector may be committing a violation, you can consider consulting a consumer attorney about your best recourse. You can learn more about your debt collection rights on Credit.com.
What Are My Options If the Debt Does Impact My Credit?
If a collection account does appear on your credit report, it will impact your credit scores. (You can see how collection accounts may be affecting your credit score by viewing your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
If you do have a collection account appear on your credit, but believe the information is wrong, you can dispute it with the major credit bureaus. (Here’s a guide to how credit report errors like this happen.)
More on Managing Debt:
- The Credit.com Debt Management Learning Center
- Understanding Your Debt Collection Rights
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights