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The 2 Words Debt Collectors Don't Want to Hear

Christine DiGangi

While much of the debt collection world is straightforward and, quite honestly, a little boring, some people in the industry treat it like a free-for-all.

"There are widespread attempts to add charges to debts that aren't legal. Excess interest is something we've encountered quite frequently," said Daniel Edelman, consumer law attorney, founder and partner at Edelman, Combs, Latturner, & Goodwin in Chicago. The biggest problem he sees is people trying to collect debts when they have no authority to do so, Edelman said, but suing people over old debts is another large issue. "We've seen people who try to collect debts that are 15 to 20 years old. There's no state in which something like that is still collectable, but it's also very cheap for people to get it, so they acquire it and try to get people to pay it."

Those two words debt collectors don't want to hear? "Beyond statute." There's a statute of limitations on debt, and after it expires, the debt owner can't sue the debtor in an attempt to get payment. Statutes vary by state and kind of debt (here's a quick guide), but if someone tries to collect an old debt of yours, let the red flags fly.

"Ask for documentation that the person trying to collect the debt is authorized to do that, and that will give you an idea of how old it is," Edelman said. "If there's any question about the debt … or the authority of the person trying to collect it or the amount, I would suggest you consult an attorney."

It's also illegal for a collector to offer to settle a debt that's beyond statute without telling the debtor the statute has expired. It's misleading, Edelman said, and because many states start the statute of limitations from the date of the last payment, so that making a new payment would restart the clock.

"If somebody contacts you and you haven't heard from them before, don't assume that just because they have information about you that they're legitimate," Edelman said. Ask for written verification of the debt, and if you have questions about it, ask for help. Edelman said most lawyers will review a case for free, and an attorney can quickly tell you if a violation has occurred. "[I]t's worthwhile to consult an attorney. Consumers may waive their rights if they don't do things correctly."

If you're worried about other debts affecting you, you can check your free annual credit reports for any judgments or collection accounts that could be dragging down your scores. You can also check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see how collection accounts are impacting you.


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