The Worst Thing a Debt Collector can do to You

Picture with me the following scenario:

You receive what looks like formal documents in the mail, or someone shows up at your doorstep to hand them to you, or you get a note in the mail saying you have certified mail to pick up at the post office. No matter how this piece of paper gets to you, it looks official and serious.

After scanning the document to make sure you’re not being arrested, you then realize that you are being sued. By a collection company. For a debt that you may or may not owe to a doctor, hospital, credit card company, or car dealership. Or some other entity that you supposedly owe money to.

What you do next with this document greatly depends on whether you understand what the WORST thing a debt collector can do to you. Here’s option 1 (the not-so-good choice):

  1. You ignore or forget (same thing) the piece of paper. Maybe hope it’s somehow not legitimate, or reason that you just don’t have time to deal with this right now. Or maybe you do owe the debt, so what’s the point of fighting something you already know you owe?

Option 2, below (the better choice):

2. You respond to the document by filing what’s called an “Answer.” Or you hire an attorney to do this for you. You show up in court when you’re supposed to, and you get all the information before settling or going to trial with the collection company.

You may be thinking to yourself: “But why go to all that trouble? That’s just attorney-speak for generating more business for themselves. Or, who has the time to do that? I’m working two jobs and trying to pay child support, there’s no time to deal with something I already know about.”

Don't just sit there! Do something!

Don’t just sit there! Do something!

Here’s where you are wrong. Option #1 allows the debt collector to do the WORST thing that they can do to anyone: ask for a default judgment from the court, and then move forward with enforcing their default judgment.

Default judgments generally provide the maximum amount the collection company is seeking, plus fees, interest, and costs of filing a lawsuit. Allowing a default judgment to happen to you just raises the amount of money you are going to have to pay. A default judgment also allows the collection company to garnish your wages, if you’re employed, or find alternative ways to suck money from you. Third, a default judgment becomes part of your public record, people can see it and draw their own conclusions about it.

Bottom line: the worst thing a debt collector can do to you is get a default judgment against you. Don’t ignore the paperwork they serve you with, and read the paragraph above to understand what makes default judgments the WORST.

4 Tips to Help You Determine if a Debt Collector is Legitimate

You get a call from someone who claims they are calling on behalf of X Collection Company because you owe $600.00.

 

Whether or not you know about the $600, the first thing probably running through your mind is “Who is this person, and what is this company whose name I’ve already forgotten? I’ve never heard of this company before.” And if you had any conversation at all with this person, they probably made sure to (A) make you feel bad about this supposed debt, and (B) try to get you to commit to paying the debt immediately or in a convenient payment plan, that they can take over the phone. Right now.

 

Before you whip out your credit card, or agree to some sort of payment plan with this random person calling you on behalf of a company whose name you’ve already forgotten the name of, take a deep breath. Slow this train down and think through your options. Don’t agree to anything over the phone on the first phone call, and follow some of the tips I have listed below:

 

  1. Wait a few days. Federal law requires debt collectors to send you a piece of paper called a “written notice of debt” within 5 days of first contacting you. It doesn’t matter if you request this letter or you you didn’t request the letter, a legitimate debt collector must mail you a written notice of debt within 5 days of calling you.
  2. Check the Secretary of State’s website. As I will discuss in another blog post, if a collector is doing business in Nebraska, regardless of where their physical office is, they are required to register with the Secretary of State. This isn’t foolproof, but it can help you to determine whether the state of Nebraska recognizes this company calling you as a legitimate collector. Click here to get you started on a search with the Nebraska Secretary of State.
  3. Check your credit report. If this company is legit, they are going to report the debt on your credit report. This isn’t always a hard and fast rule, so don’t rely exclusively on this one.
  4. Use the Googles. Search for this company online, usually the bigger name collection companies are in the news and have their own websites. Yes, scammers could also set up a website, but it’s likely others have also been scammed by the same people, so there could at least be some online forums discussing this particular scammer.

 

Unfortunately, it’s fairly easy to get a name and social security number, but you should never have to “confirm” the amount of your debt to the caller, nor should you agree to making payments on anything until you have proof that the collection company is not a scammer, and has a legitimate debt.