Roughly one in seven American adults is being pursued by a collector, for amounts averaging about $1,500, according to a report from the Center for Responsible Lending.
Complicating the situation is that debt collection has become a larger, more complex industry. If you have trouble paying a personal debt and you are deemed to be in default, your account is likely to be handled eventually by someone other than the original creditor. Banks, hospitals, utilities and other businesses often sell debts at a steep discount to third-party buyers, who try to collect the payment themselves or hire outside firms to do so; often, the same debt is resold multiple times, and sometimes debts are packaged and sold in bulk.
Along the way, details of the original debt may be lost or become outdated, meaning that collectors may try to demand payment of debts that have already been settled or belong to someone else. The report notes that as little as 6 percent of debts purchased by the largest debt-buying firms in 2009 came with any sort of documentation.
It's usually best to contact creditors yourself if you run into financial difficulties, to try to work out payment arrangements and avoid having the debt sent to collection. But you do have certain rights under a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Here are some questions about debt collections:
What should I do if I am contacted by a debt collector?
A debt collector is required to provide a "validation" notice within five days of contacting you. The notice must state basic information, like the amount owed, the name of the creditor owed the money, and what to do if you think you don't owe it. You then have 30 days to dispute the debt in writing. The New Economy Project, an advocacy group, offers more details and a sample dispute letter on its website (tinyurl.com/oke28m8).
What if a collector is being abusive?
The Debt Practices Act bars abusive and deceptive collection tactics, which means that collectors can't threaten you, trick you or harass you with late-night phone calls. But for now, the law applies only to third-party collectors and not to businesses, like banks or hospitals, collecting their own debts.
If you feel a collector is being abusive, you can complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on its website (tinyurl.com/nvh3z24). You can also complain to your state attorney general's office.
What if I get a notice that I'm being sued?
If you are notified that a collector is seeking a judgment against you in court, "it's very important not to ignore the notice," said Leslie Parrish, of the Center for Responsible Lending.
If you don't show up in court, the collector's suit can go unchallenged — even if it's inaccurate — and that may result in a default judgment against you. That gives the collector the power to take stronger steps, like garnisheeing your wages.