In 2010, a Credit.com reader lost his condo to foreclosure, leaving an unpaid second mortgage of $40,000. “I ignored their letters, never signed any of their notices, etc.” he wrote. While he may have hoped that debt would just disappear, it recently resurfaced. “Now it came (through) a lawyer to pay the amount,” he wrote.
If you can’t pay a debt, you may be tempted to turn a blind eye until you can figure something out.
But stonewalling a collector isn’t always the smartest strategy.
“Of course you absolutely have the right to ignore the debt collector, but the challenge is that it does not make the debt go away,” warns Mark Schiffman, vice president of public affairs for the American Collectors Association. “The process doesn’t stop.”
So what happens if you do decide to avoid a debt collector? There are a number of possible scenarios that can follow.
They Leave You Alone
This, of course, is what you are probably hoping for; that the debt collector will just give up trying to collect from you. Or you may hope they can’t find you, and quit trying to track you down. It may happen, but don’t count on it. Here’s why it is so hard to hide from bill collectors.
Your Credit Suffers
True, a collection account can appear on your credit reports regardless of whether you respond to attempts to reach out to you or not. But if there are special circumstances involved, such as a dispute over the original debt, talking with the collector will at least give you the chance to explain the problem and try to work something out.
The Debt Grows
Interest doesn’t necessarily stop just because you stop paying. Depending on the terms of the contract with the creditor and state law, the collector may be able to add interest and collection costs to the debt. “There is no national standard,” Shiffman says. Some consumers have even complained that their debt has doubled over time.
You Bounce From One Agency to Another
If the first collector that tries to reach out to you is unsuccessful, your account can wind up at a different agency. And that may happen any number of times as long as the balance remains unpaid.
They Reach Out to People You Know
If a bill collector cannot locate you, it is allowed to reach out to third parties, such as relatives, neighbors or your employer, but only to find you. They aren’t allowed to disclose that you owe a debt or discuss your finances with others. Still it can be embarrassing if the person they called starts asking you pointed questions.
You Get Sued
Failing to communicate with a bill collector may leave the agency with no other option than to sue you. You can try to defend a debt collection lawsuit (here’s how) but if they are successful in court, a judgment will be entered against you. That, in turn, may allow the collector to garnish your wages or go after your bank account (depending on state law). This guide explains what happens when there is a judgment against you.
The Stress Mounts
Hate hearing the phone ring or going to the mailbox? Dodging debt collectors can leave you on edge. Yes, it can be scary or frustrating to talk with a bill collector. But the alternative — not talking with them — can be equally as stressful.
“Probably the most consumer-friendly aspect of debt collection happens when you call the debt collector because at that point they want to work with you to try to resolve the debt,” insists Schiffman.
If you have unresolved collection accounts, read up on the pros and cons of your options when dealing with debt collectors. Decide on your approach and then pick up the phone — or write the letter — so you can put it behind you.
Because collection accounts have such a serious impact on your credit scores, it’s a good idea to check your free annual credit reports to see if you have any outstanding collection accounts, and then to monitor your credit scores each month, which you can do for free at Credit.com.
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Image: Stacey Newman