When you are months past due on a debt, your creditor may assign or sell the debt to a third-party debt collection agency, which will attempt to collect it. In extreme cases of nonpayment, you may find yourself sued by the debt collector.
If you’re confused about the lawsuit and aren’t sure how to respond, follow the guidelines outlined below. Whether the lawsuit is legitimate or a scam, here’s everything you need to know if you’re being sued by a debt collector.
If you’re being sued by a debt collector, you should understand what the process generally looks like – though the exact timeline varies from person to person. If your experience doesn’t at all match what’s below, you’ll want to verify the debt and the legitimacy of the debt collector to avoid a debt collection scam.
If you have verified the legitimacy of the debt in collections, the most important thing you can do now is respond to the debt collection lawsuit. Although it can be scary to first receive notice of a lawsuit, ignoring it and hoping the debt collector won’t call again can get you in trouble. Debt collectors aren’t going to drop a lawsuit just because you ignore it. Instead, if you miss the deadlines to appear in court, it will be significantly harder for a debt collection defense attorney to help you.
Debt collectors are often third-party agencies hired by the original creditor after you default. If you’re being sued for debt and you disagree with any or all of the information in the debt collection lawsuit, you will want to file a response to the lawsuit in court. You will then have the opportunity to contest what’s in the lawsuit or ask the court to dismiss it altogether. If you’re disputing the lawsuit, bring documentation such as the validation letter to show:
If your rights have been violated by a debt collector, you should bring evidence of that to court. Check the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), Fair Credit Reporting Act and Truth in Lending Act for specific violations. Under the FDCPA, for example, debt collectors may not:
There are several ways you can proceed when it comes time to decide whether or not to accept a debt collection lawsuit.
If you accepted a judgment and you’re wondering how to win a debt collection lawsuit, your best bet is consulting a debt collection attorney. Most consumer law attorneys will offer a free consultation in which they’ll discuss your options with you.
Consider consulting a licensed debt collection lawyer, as they specialize in debt defenses and will likely be able to give you more detailed legal advice.
Even if you don’t believe you can afford to hire an attorney, you should ask around, as many debt collection lawyers will take your case for a low fee or a contingent fee.
Someone whose debt is legitimate can try to negotiate a settlement in exchange for having the lawsuit dropped.
“It’s a good option for consumers if they know they owe the debt, they agree with the amount and they can afford to pay something,” said Barry Coleman, vice president of counseling and education programs for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “They might be able to work out some sort of settlement and not go to court.”
Coleman added that there’s incentive for the collection agency to do this, too, because the hassle and expense of court proceedings is also expensive for them.
Threatening to file for bankruptcy can also help if you decide to settle. This doesn’t mean you have to actually file bankruptcy, but qualifying for bankruptcy can help with a settlement negotiation.
Depending on the state and the amount you owe, people with limited wages and assets might be exempt from wage garnishment, meaning they’re “judgment proof.” Consult a credit counselor, lawyer or other expert in your area to figure out if you fit these criteria.
Another option, depending on your financial situation and the size of your debt, is to file bankruptcy.
If you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all of your debts will be forgiven and the debt collector will not be able to collect from you. If you file Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you might be able to negotiate a significantly lower amount to pay the debt collector, depending on your situation. Once you pay the agreed-upon amount, you can no longer be pursued by or sued by a debt collector.
Filing for bankruptcy is a major financial move with damaging effects. Speak with a counselor, financial advisor or other qualified professional before you seek out this option.
If a debt collector on the phone insists you must pay immediately, take a deep breath and count to 10. Don’t agree to anything or share too much information. Ask for a debt validation letter or proof of the lawsuit in writing before anything else.
Don’t be fazed by a debt collector who demands you make a payment today over the phone. Any legitimate deal should be available in several days once you’ve had time to verify that the debt collector is legitimate.
If you’d like to minimize your risk of a debt collection scam, you should wait to verify information before continuing any conversations. For example, you can hang up the phone and call back using contact information you find online or information you get from the local Secretary of State to ensure you’re speaking with a legitimate company.
Other warning signs of a scam include:
Even though there are scams out there, it’s important to treat everything as legitimate from the outset. You will be able to figure out if a lawsuit is a scam once you do your due diligence.
If you ignore a debt collection lawsuit and the debt collector’s attorney shows up, the court will likely rule in favor of the debt collector by default. If the court orders a default judgment against you, the debt collector can:
In general, avoid giving out too much information. A legitimate debt collector might ask for a few details to verify who you are, but you should be cautious about sharing more than a few personal details.
Don’t apologize or explain yourself, as you might make confessions that could be used against you in court. Plus, if you begin rambling or apologizing, you might begin speaking about a different debt than the one they called about, and could potentially talk yourself into a worse situation.
Never, under any circumstances, give a debt collector access to your bank accounts.
Coleman said providing bank account information can be taken as authorization to withdraw funds. “Once they have that information, they could certainly debit the account and take an amount that wasn’t agreed upon, which would have all sorts of consequences,” he said.
If you’ve decided to pay off your debt once and for all, you might come across debt settlement companies when researching how to pay off your debt in collections. Be cautious of debt settlement companies, and avoid them if possible. They often leave consumers in a worse position than when they started out. Plus, debt settlement hurts your credit.
If you choose to work with a debt settlement firm, it’s crucial you understand what you’re getting into. Not all creditors will work with debt settlement companies, and you will have to pay the company a fee for managing the settlement.
A safer and potentially more affordable alternative to debt settlement is a debt management plan offered by a nonprofit organization. With this type of plan, you could work with a certified credit counselor who can help you repay your debt, as well as negotiate with creditors and debt collectors on your behalf to reduce or reverse fees and lower your monthly payments.