Life gets busy, and sometimes you may forget to pay a bill. If this happens, you may even be contacted by a collections agency. Here’s how to handle a debt collector that harasses you about an old bill.
Getting harassed about old bills? Here’s how to handle debt collectors
If you have an outstanding bill, how you handle it will typically depend on a number of factors, including what state you live in and how old the debt is.
How to handle debt collectors: Stopping those phone calls & emails
If you’re being bugged by a debt collector seemingly at every turn, you do have a recourse. It’s called a “drop dead letter.”
“You also have the right to send what’s called a drop dead letter,” says money expert Clark Howard. “This letter will prevent the collector from contacting you again about a debt. Collectors can’t call you at work once you say they can’t, though you can still be sued against the debt you legitimately owe.”
Before you entertain any inquiry about unpaid money you owe, you need to get as much information as you can about the debt and debt collector. Ask for the debt collector’s name, and the company’s name, address and phone number. If they don’t provide this info, it could be a scam.
Also, a legit bill collector will send what’s called a “debt validation notice,” which outlines what you owe. This should be enough info you need to determine whether the debt’s statute of limitations may have passed, meaning the debt is no longer legally active.
That’s right: Debts, just like diary in your favorite grocery’s frozen food section, expire after a while. When that happens the debt is considered “time barred.”
How to handle debt collectors: Statute of limitations
The statute of limitations differs depending on what state you live in. Here’s a list of the statute of limitations in each state.
In Arkansas, for example, medical debts are only active for two years. Once the statute of limitations has passed, it doesn’t mean that you don’t owe the debt, it just means that the debt collector loses the right to take legal action against you.
Because some consumers may get the wrong idea, it’s very important to know two things about the statute of limitations: When it kicks in is dependent upon the type of debt and the law that applies either in the state where you live now or the one specified in your credit contract.
If you have reason to believe that the statute of limitations has passed on a particular debt that you’ve been contacted about, simply ask the debt collector whether it has or not. By law, they must tell the truth. Of course, they may decline to answer. In that case, within 30 days, you’ll need to write a letter requesting verification of the debt.
How to handle debt collectors: To pay or not to pay
If you find that the statute of limitations has not passed, you can choose to do either of these two things: Ignore it or pay it.
- If you choose not to pay: Not paying bills, even old ones, can have an adverse effect on your credit score. That means your ability to get a loan may be impacted for a period of time.
- If you choose to pay: Negotiate. If the bill is an old one, debt collectors may be open to take a partial amount on the debt. In many cases, you can negotiate a settlement that seems fair to both parties. Before you pay, get the terms in writing.
But here’s the thing: If you do choose to pay a time-barred bill, you may open up a can of worms.
Here’s why you may NOT want to pay that old bill
Paying some old bills could end up costing you even more money than you might expect. Making even one payment on an expired debt can revive the debt collector’s legal leverage over you. In effect, the clock resets, kickstarting a new statute of limitations.
Money expert Clark Howard explains it this way: “If you pay even so much as one penny against an old debt that’s not legally active anymore, the entire debt comes back to life even if it had been outside of the statute of limitations.”
No matter what, never promise to pay a bill verbally to a debt collector. They may take that as a legal agreement. Also, always get any accord you make with them in writing first.