by Jillian Beirne Davi
Have you been shutting your phone off out of fear of creditors calling? If so, read on.
Nearly six years ago, I drove off my own fiscal cliff. I was drowning in credit card debt and didn’t know what to do. I had to shut my phone off because creditors called me from 7:00am to 8:59PM. I was terrified.
I remember one afternoon during this time; I got a call from a representative of a well-known credit card company. He said that if I did not pay a minimum of $2,000 on my balance, he would be referring my "case" on to their team of attorneys for review and I would be sued for the balance.
Two thousand dollars?! I didn't know anyone with that amount of money. Everyone I knew, parents included, were broke. I felt trapped in my own misery; young, naive and sinking fast.
That conversation shook me to the core. In fact, I was so distraught I began to battle depression and morbid thoughts that lasted quite a few months. (I hope you don’t mind me being vulnerable with you here.)
Reflecting on that time is painful to write, even years later. To think that I wanted to throw my life away because of some scary credit rep and $2,000.
Yet this is a common result of bullying that occurs every day in the collections industry. Yes, I was irresponsible, lived beyond my means and created a financial mess. And yes I understand that there are true con artists out on the world that run up tremendous amounts of debt and skip out on the bill. I understand the need for collections. At the same time, I felt so trapped and worthless.
Eventually after many sleepless nights, I had a revelation of sorts. I remember thinking that I had enough of the bullying. Not just from this one company but from all of them. I decided that I was stronger than this situation, and made a powerful decision to dig myself out. Now, I must preface by saying I am not an attorney, licensed financial advisor, accountant or anything like that. I’m just one regular woman who decided to take action. Here are some steps that I took to stand up to creditors and I hope they inspire you to do the same.
1. Get them to stop calling. Turns out there are many resources that provide sample letters you can send to credit card companies or collection agencies that will either stop or dramatically decrease their incessant calls. I wrote letters to every credit card company and agency. About thirty days later, the number of calls dramatically reduced.
2. Get Clear on Who You are Speaking To: Collection agencies use manipulative language to get consumers to pay. Sometimes they misrepresent themselves. When you are on the phone, ask the person’s name and employer. Refuse to have a conversation if they cannot provide this simple information. In my case, the representative that called used slippery language to make it seem like he worked for the major credit card company. Turned out he was a collector misrepresenting himself on the phone.
3. Get Everything in Writing. All communication between you and the lenders or collection agencies must always, always be in writing. This might seem obvious to some but many people make verbal agreements with intimidating collection agency reps over the phone without ever asking for the agreement to be made in writing! Keep hard copies of every letter sent and received. Additionally, request a return receipt for all your outgoing letters and send them certified mail.
4. Challenge any and all requests for debt collection. If you are dealing with a collection agency, the burden to prove that the debt belongs to you is on THEIR shoulders. They must present evidence that they are authorized to collect the alleged balance. You may owe the total amount but write a letter requesting that the agency verify that they are authorized to collect in the first place. There are many shady agencies out there trying to collect debts without proper authorization to do so.
5. Check for the statute of limitations in your state. Though this varies from state to state, find out the period of time a creditor or collection agency is legally allowed to come after you to collect, before the debt becomes null and void. For example, if the alleged debt owed was from an account that’s seven or more years old, they may not be legally permitted to collect. The account is simply too old. But of course, unscrupulous agencies out there thrive on resurrecting what I like to call “zombie accounts” and bet on your ignorance of the credit laws in your state.
6. Get Professional Help. And of course, there are attorneys, free credit counselors and other professionals that can help you assess what your options are based on your unique situation. It’s great to clarity on exactly what you can legally do to stand up to your creditors. Most local governments have free or low-cost resources to help you decide which options are right for you. One resource I found particularly helpful through all of this is the Federal Trade Commission website under Consumer Protection. It lays out a lot of these guidelines clearly. http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/money-credit
By getting everything in writing and getting crystal clear on my rights, I was able to take a stand against unethical practices. Though it required a lot of courage, I eventually paid off all my accounts. I vowed to leave that dark period behind and stay away from soul-sucking debt for good.
If you are secretly struggling in this area, I hope this inspires you to do your research and take action NOW. It is possible to take your power back and stand up for your rights as a consumer.