Stop Debt Collectors from Harassing Your Cell Phone
Want to stop collection calls? Think you’ll breathe easier, endure less shame, function better, and maybe even get yourself back on track faster if debt-collectors will just cease and desist?
So frustrated with the annoyance that you even tried the “11 magic words that can wipe out debt” search, only to be disappointed again?
The deed can be done. Stopping collection calls is both absolutely legal and completely attainable. But you must do it by the book.
After all, getting in over your head financially isn’t supposed to be a bed of proverbial roses. And it’s not like we aren’t warned about this from an early age. Literature is full of cautionary tales about what happens when people living beyond their means — for whatever reason, from emergencies to habitual overspending — fail to, well, pay the piper.
But there’s ruing your cash-flow squeeze while gamely trying to do something about it, and there’s the dread that’s triggered every time your phone rings for fear there’s a debt-collector on the other end.
Everyone knows an aggressive debt-collector story. They pose as attorneys. They threaten to have the debtor arrested, or harmed. They use tough, bullying, even obscene language. They indulge in deceit. They call at bizarre hours. They call frequently. They call relatives. They call employers. They fail to disclose who they are or for whom they’re working.
Who can live like that?
You can stop those calls yourself. The process requires attention to detail, an ability to follow instructions precisely, and action. Or you can recruit someone, such as a professional from a nonprofit credit counseling agency, to carry out the task on your behalf.
First Things First: Verify the Debt is Yours
Errors in the debt-collection business are not rare. Similar names, similar addresses, similar birthdates. It happens. Therefore, begin by revealing zero personal or financial information. Even if you think a collection agent is right, you concede nothing.
Instead, using collection guidelines from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you firmly but politely ask to be presented with the evidence.
Chances are, you’ll be talking to a third-party creditor. That is, someone who bought the debt at some fraction of what was owed, and now the caller is attempting to collect most of the original balance, thereby turning a profit.
There’s nothing wrong with this arrangement, but you need to protect yourself.
Get to the bottom of the tale: The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends finding out who the original creditor was, and when and how the debt was incurred and how much the balance is, including a breakdown of interest and fees. Also, be sure to secure the debt collector’s name, address, and telephone number.
Finally, ask to be contacted only in writing.
Ask up front, and the collector is obligated to send written validation to you within five days. Then you have 30 days to challenge the accuracy or dispute the debt. Absent a successful challenge, the collector has the right to conclude the debt is valid.
If everything else proves out — it’s you and you incurred the debt — also make certain the claim is being made within the statute of limitations. Time limits differ from state to state, and for different types of debt, but it’s between three and six years in most states.
If enough time has passed, a creditor cannot secure a court judgment against you. This does not mean you no longer owe the debt. You still do. It just means the debt collector can’t go to court and force you to pay, unless you don’t show up for the court appearance. If you don’t show, they win the case by default.
So the Debt Proves Valid: What Then?
This is no time to pull into your shell. Failing to communicate will not cure your debt problem, and it could lead to legal trouble. Instead, be open and honest about your situation. Maybe your cash crunch is temporary because of an emergency expense, or you’ve been laid off. Whatever the situation, being proactive can work only in your favor.
Attempt to negotiate the terms of your debt. The earlier you lay out your plight, the more likely you are to find your creditors are willing to cut you some slack by letting you skip a payment, or setting up a series of interest-only payments. Some might be willing to arrange a completely new payment plan.
If you’re so far behind you’re hearing from third-party collectors, you might even be able to negotiate an amount that is only a fraction of the original amount owed. After all — as noted above — they paid pennies on the dollar; they might be satisfied with slightly more pennies on the dollar to settle the debt.
Still, taking advantage of pressure-relieving opportunities can be time-consuming and emotionally sapping. If only there were professional experts willing to go to bat for you.
How a Debt Management Plan Can Stop Collection Calls
Debt management is among the quickest, most efficient, and least complicated ways to get collectors to stop calling. In a nutshell, a debt management plan — DMP — puts a reliable, professional, experienced liaison between you and your creditors, and, because the creditor knows action is being taken, the calls stop.
The trick is finding the right credit counseling agency for you.
For openers, the Federal Trade Commission recommends avoiding for-profit credit-repair companies. Instead, seek a nonprofit debt-counseling service, one accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America.
Typically, debt-management companies work with creditors on behalf of clients to shrink monthly payments and interest rates as well as getting penalties waived or shaved.
The aim of a DMP is to reorganize unsecured debt so payments are affordable and predictable for the consumer, and acceptable and reliable for the creditor. Oftentimes, it’s debt consolidation without the debt consolidation loan.
In short, everybody wins.
What About Settling with a Collection Agency?
Occasionally, creditors are willing to accept less than the total amount owed as full payment. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t like to get out from under debt for a fraction of what is owed?
But be careful. Despite what the radio commercials say, you don’t have an absolute “right” to force a creditor to accept less. And the debt settlement process, though genuine, is a minefield.
For starters, do not confuse debt settlement with debt management.
Under debt management, debts are restructured into a single, predictable, stable payment. Clients who stick to the program pay back their debt over time with no additional damage to their credit ratings. In fact, credit scores can benefit from steady, on-time payments.
By contrast, whether you arrive at a debt settlement on your own (assuming you have a lump sum of cash equal to about half what you owe) or you go through a third party, the result will hammer your credit score.
Under debt settlement, companies direct you to stop making payments to your unsecured creditors — credit card issuers, personal loans, medical bills — and instead have you set up a savings account into which you make regular deposits. When the balance reaches about half the debt owed, the company attempts to get the creditor to accept that amount as payment in full.
Each situation is different, of course, but, depending on the debtor’s circumstances, debt settlement typically takes three years.
Meanwhile, you’re still getting collection calls and mail; late and, possibly, over-limit fees and interest are mounting; and as your delinquency ratio surges, your credit score plummets.
Even if you’re able to settle — some creditors will not negotiate — there’s more to worry over. Debt settlement companies do not work free; you’ll have to pay a fee equal to some percentage of the debt, or the debt settled, often between 18%-25%.
Wait — there’s more. Uncle Sam will take a keen interest in whatever amount of debt is forgiven. Under IRS rules, that amount is considered ordinary income, and will be taxed at your highest marginal rate.
In short, with all its pitfalls, debt settlement is only for worst-case scenarios.
What About That Secret Phrase to Stop Collection?
Lots of desperate folks have performed the “11 word phrase to stop debt collectors” search, in hopes of having their burdens magically erased. There’s even an infomercial hosted by Larry King that lays out the claim, and Larry wouldn’t steer us wrong … right?
Mostly, such searches lead to someone wanting to sell you a book or a system. The old advice about being wary of anyone who offers to help if you pay them up front applies here, too.
It’s not that there isn’t a so-called magic phrase. In fact, we addressed it a bit at the top: Make the collector prove the debt is yours.
Reporter Jake Halpern lays out the special circumstances in episode 532 of This American Life, with host Ira Glass: A Georgia couple answers a court summons about a debt, perplexed about its origin. So they ask the lawyer representing the collection agency: Can you show us how you got to the number you say we owe? Do you have any account statements? Do you have a copy of our original contract with the credit card company?
When the lawyer can’t produce any of that, he drops the case. So, why doesn’t everybody do that? Because most debtors don’t show up for court and lose by default. Earlier, they don’t press debt collectors for details.
Even then, a debtor is rolling the dice. What if the debt collector has done its homework?
Here is a magic phrase that isn’t a gamble. It has eight simple words: “I have enrolled in a debt-management program.”
Debt collectors who hear that, know they’re going to start seeing regular payments, and they’ll call off the dogs. Problem solved. You’ll never again fear the sound of your phone ringing at dinnertime.
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Pyles, S. (2019, Feb. 13) How to Deal With Debt Collectors in 3 Steps. Retrieved from: https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/finance/how-to-deal-with-debt-collectors/
Wesley, D. (2019, Feb. 5) How To Permanently Stop Debt Collectors From Calling You. Retrieved from: https://www.debtconsolidation.com/stop-debt-collector-calls/
Irby, L. (2019, January 25) State-by-State List of Statute of Limitations on Debt. Retrieved from: https://www.thebalance.com/state-by-state-list-of-statute-of-limitations-on-debt-960881
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Fralick, K. (2018, September 9) Is Debt Settlement a Good Idea? Retrieved from: https://www.fool.com/credit-cards/2018/09/09/is-debt-settlement-a-good-idea.aspx
Halpern, J. (2014, August 15) Magic Words, Prologue. Retrieved from: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/532/transcript