Samantha Maloney (who did not want to use her real name) is a debt collector, and she holds her breath when she places a call to a new “client.”
“You never know what you’re going to get on the other end,” she says. “I wish they knew that I was just as nervous to talk to them as they are to talk to me. This is just my job, and I have to acknowledge that we’re both humans.”
a Debt Collector
“I don’t think this is a job anyone wants,” she says. “You’re telling someone ‘pay up’ or we may ruin your lives. Almost every day, I hear people crying or cursing at me.”
According to a study by the Urban Institute, one in three Americans have debt that is labeled as “in collections.” That’s roughly 77 million adults sent to collections over debts as low as a few dollars or as large as hundreds of thousands.
I’ll admit that I was so ashamed to get that call from Samantha. My initial reaction, like most, was defensive and angry, but it was really a cover for my embarrassment.
The Lowdown on How to Deal With Debt Collectors
So how can you handle a collections call without fear, anxiety, or screaming? Who better than Samantha herself to give you advice on how to deal with debt collectors?
Don’t Freak Out
Yes, there’s a lot on the line — mainly your credit score and history. Debts in collections can stay on your record for up to seven years, which is something to remember. But don’t take out your frustration on the collections agent.
“The more you scream, the more I get agitated, and that could hurt you down the line,” Samantha cautions.
It doesn’t matter how much you owe. The collections agency generally isn’t expecting you to pay off the full amount at once. They may suggest smaller installments over a longer period, with its added interest costs. Instead, negotiate a lower payout.
“Usually, we’re willing to accept 75 to 80 percent of what is owed, depending on the person and their history,” Samantha says. If most collections agencies are like hers, that’s a pretty great deal on larger amounts of debt.
Work With the Debt Collector
If you’re not in a position to pay the full amount, Samantha says, then “the best thing you can do is ask for a payment plan.”
Given that the average delinquent debt is a little over $5,000, according to the Urban Institute study, paying the money in one shot can be brutal, even with a discount. Just pay something. Tell collections agents your situation and offer an amount that is reasonable and fair. Samantha suggests 10 percent of the total bill, which is usually a fair amount.
Further Reading: Learn about potential debt-relief options.
Don’t Give in Easily
While we advise taking care of your debts as soon as you know about them, there are exceptions, Samantha says. For example, take my situation, which involved a dispute with my insurance company.
So when shouldn’t you pay a debt collector? First and foremost, don’t pay If the debt is near the statute of limitations. All states are different, but you can see the laws regarding yours by contacting your state’s attorney general’s office. Also, don’t pay if — like me — your debt involves multiple parties.
Instead, ask for all the information you can about the debt, including the original owner, the date of the service, and who the collection agent works for. Then offer to call back at a later time. If possible, this could stretch it out until you hit the statute of limitations.
Further Reading: “How to Handle a Medical Bill Sent to Collections Without Notice”
How to Avoid Debt-Collector Scams
Sadly, scams and fake debts are part of the collections business. That’s why it’s so important to ask for details about the original debt and to check it with your own records.
This may seem like basic advice, but Samantha adds, “You won’t believe how many people just pay up because we call.”
“I could be anyone from anywhere, and now I have their credit card info, name, address . . . everything. It could be real dangerous if you’re not safe.”
Know Your Rights
Finally, the debt-collection business has transformed over the last 20 years thanks to consumer protections that are in place. Today, agents aren’t allowed to contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.; call you at work if you ask them to stop; or talk to someone other than yourself. And unlike in the past, they are also banned from threatening you or your property (this includes cursing at you) or lying to you about the debt’s standing (including the statute of limitations).
If you feel that you’ve been mistreated by a credit agency, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or sue the collections agency itself.
Final Thoughts on Being Sent to Collections
As for Samantha, she wants you to know that she understands your frustration. It’s part of her job to keep calm, even if you can’t. But with patience, an understanding of your rights, and a plan in place to tackle your outstanding debts, you can meet any collections call head-on.
Further Reading: “4 Things to Remember When Overwhelmed by Debt”