by Matt Frankel, CFP | March 18, 2019
There are five different categories of information that make up your FICO® Score, but none is more important than your payment history, which accounts for 35% of the total. The most obvious piece of this category is whether you pay your bills on time or not, and for people with strong credit histories, it usually ends there.
On the other hand, if you're one of the millions of Americans without a spotless credit history, there are some other things that could be weighing down your score in the payment history category. Two big ones are collection accounts and charge-offs, which can be score-killers and can linger on your credit for years, especially if you don't know how to deal with them.
With that in mind, here's a guide to dealing with collections and charge-offs on your credit. To be clear, these aren't easy to get rid of, but they're definitely worth confronting head-on. With smart planning you can put yourself in a position to deal with them wisely and help accelerate your credit-repair process.
A collection account is what happens when a creditor has tried to collect a debt from you for some time (usually three to six months) and has been unsuccessful. In this case, what generally happens is the creditor sells your debt to a collection agency for pennies on the dollar, and the collection agency assumes responsibility for collecting the debt.
Charge-offs tend to be worse than collections from a credit repair standpoint for one simple reason -- you generally have far less negotiating power when it comes to getting them removed.
If you aren't familiar with the term, a charge-off occurs when you fail to make the payments on a debt for a prolonged amount of time and the creditor essentially gives up. The creditor then writes off the debt as a loss. This generally happens after about six months or so of non-payment, but it varies among creditors. After your debt is charged off, the creditor can continue to try to collect the debt, or they may decide to sue you for it. In many cases, the creditor will sell your debt to a third-party collection agency.
Before you can start doing credit repair, you'll need to assess the damage and gather some information that will help you deal with it. To do that, you'll need a copy of your credit reports.
Notice that word is pluralized. There are three major credit bureaus that maintain files on American consumers -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. While all three should theoretically contain the same information, in practice they are rarely exactly the same. In short, you need all three to do the best job of assessing your damage.
Fortunately, you're entitled to a completely free copy of your credit report from each bureau once per year, according to federal law. There are many "free credit report" websites out there, but these generally a.) don't give you all three reports, b.) are designed to sell you some sort of service, c.) will end up spamming you with emails if you sign up, or d.) all of the above.
The place to claim your truly free credit reports is at www.annualcreditreport.com. You have the option of requesting just one, or all three of your credit reports. For the purposes of damage control, it's a good idea to request all three.
There are many so-called "credit repair" companies that essentially tell you to abuse this dispute process. In a nutshell, they instruct you to (or the service does it) send letters to the three major credit bureaus disputing the legitimacy of every negative item on your credit report -- late payments, collections, charge-offs, judgements, you name it.
By law, creditors must verify the accuracy of disputed information within 30 days, or the credit bureau must remove it from your credit report.
To be fair, creditors often don't verify the information within the 30-day window, and it is indeed removed, resulting in a credit score bump -- at least temporarily. However, there are some key problems with this strategy:
While I'm not a fan of using the dispute process to try and game the system, I encourage you to use it for its intended purposes. If you notice collection accounts or charge-offs that truly don't belong to you, have already been paid, or contain some other erroneous information, by all means file a dispute.
To be clear, this is a widespread problem. A study by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that about 20% of credit reports contained legitimate errors. On top of that, about 5% of all credit reports contained errors that were so significant that, when removed, resulted in the consumer's credit score increasing to the point where they could obtain a lower interest rate on loans.
You can easily dispute faulty information on the credit bureaus' websites or by mail. To make it easy, here are the links to information about each of the three credit bureaus' dispute processes:
Now that we've looked at how to deal with incorrect information, let's take a look at how to deal with collection accounts and charge-offs that are accurate. We'll start with collection accounts.
It's important to note that debt collectors buy debt for "pennies on the dollar." Because your original credit account was so delinquent, it was viewed as unlikely to ever be paid by the creditor and was likely sold to a debt collector for a steep discount.
In fact, one recent report found that debt buyers pay an average of just $0.04 for every dollar of the debt's face value. So, if you owed a creditor $5,000, a debt collector likely paid in the ballpark of $200 to buy this debt.
Because the debt collector likely paid so little to buy your debt, you have significant room to negotiate a settlement. It's not uncommon for a $1,000 collections account to be settled for $300 or so, for example.
One extremely important point to consider when dealing with collectors is the status that will be displayed on your credit report after the debt is cleared, as this can have a significant impact on your credit score. While this is a bit of a simplification, there are four general statuses that can be given to collection accounts on your credit report:
Note: In the latest version of the FICO formula (FICO® Score 9), paid collections are no longer counted as a negative factor when it comes to your credit score (although they'll still be listed on your credit report). However, it's important to realize that although it's several years old, not many lenders have started using it yet. Paid collections are indeed a negative factor in the most commonly-used version (FICO® Score 8), although they are certainly better than unpaid collections.
The wording used on your credit report, as discussed in the last section, can certainly be included in the negotiation process. For example, if a collector offers you a settlement in writing, you can call them and say that you'll write them a check right now if they'll agree to permanently remove the account from your credit afterwards.
If they say no, ask if they'll at least report it as "paid in full" instead of "settled." You can often successfully negotiate a removal by offering to pay the debt in full -- as this would certainly be a win-win for both you and the collection agency.
In my experience, most collectors will jump at the chance for a quick payday -- after all, once they get their money, what do they care what your credit report says? Just be sure to get whatever they agree to in writing before paying the account. (This is generally a good idea anytime a creditor or collector agrees to anything.)
Piggybacking on the last section, I can't over-emphasize the importance of getting any offers, concessions, or promises from creditors in written form.
For example, don't take a debt collector's word for it that they'll remove a negative item from your credit report completely if you pay the balance in full. Insist that you have the offer in writing before you send them any money. This is a pretty standard procedure, and any collector should be used to accommodating requests for written communications.
One important thing to keep in mind before you start calling debt collectors, or before you start answering their phone calls, is your rights as a consumer. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects you from abusive debt collection practices, however that doesn't mean that all collectors actually follow the rules.
With that in mind, here's what debt collectors are not allowed to do:
Furthermore, debt collectors are required to tell you (in writing) within five days of their initial contact with you that you have the right to dispute the debt. In addition, you have the right to ask for the name and address of the original creditor.
Your best course of action depends on which course of action the creditor uses to try and get some of its money back.
If the creditor has not yet sold your debt to a collector or tried to sue you, you can negotiate a settlement in the same manner that I discussed in the section about dealing with collection accounts. Generally, this is the case for the first three to six months after your account became delinquent, although the timetable can certainly be longer or shorter than this.
On the other hand, if the creditor sues you for the debt or sells it to a third-party debt collector, it gets a little more complicated. To be clear, either of these situations will likely result in two negative items on your credit report -- the original charged-off account as well as the resulting collection account or legal judgement. (Note: Collections accounts are far more common than judgments when it comes to unpaid credit card debts, although it's not unheard of for a credit card company to sue to collect a debt, especially if it's a large dollar amount.)
You'll probably need to deal with the collection and charge-off individually, especially if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector. In other words, a debt collector has no control over what the original creditor reports to the credit bureaus. Plus, the original creditor really has no incentive to help you out simply because you paid off the debt collector.
The point is that if your goal is to get a charge-off removed and the debt has been sent to a collector, the only way to do it is to negotiate with your original creditor -- that is, the one that is reporting the charge-off. If you aren't sure how to get in touch with the original creditor, you can find their contact information attached to their entry on your credit report. As soon as your call is answered, ask to speak to someone who has the authority to remove the charge-off.
One strategy that many people have had success with is asking the creditor to remove the charge-off (or simply to stop reporting it) in exchange for some sort of payment. You don't need to offer your account's full balance -- after all, even if the creditor accepts your offer, you still legally owe the entire debt to a third party -- but, the more you are prepared to pay, the better position you'll be in to negotiate.
As always, get any promises to delete the charge-off in writing. Ask the person you're speaking with to fax the agreement on a company letterhead, or through the mail, and don't send any money until you have the document in your hand.
You can send a removal request in writing. This is known as a pay-for-delete letter in which you state that you're willing to pay a certain sum of money in exchange for removal of the charge-off.
Here's one point to remember. The creditor you're dealing with is a business. At the end of the day, they really don't care about your life story or any excuses (valid or not) about why you didn't pay the debt. If it makes good business sense for them to stop reporting the charge-off, they're likely to do it. Be polite and keep the conversation or letter to the point you want them to know -- that it's in their best interest to accept your offer of payment for removal.
Alternatively, there are several (legitimate) credit repair professionals that will negotiate with creditors on your behalf. There are attorneys who specialize in credit repair and debt repayment issues, for example. Just be prepared to pay handsomely if you pursue that route.
Unfortunately, charge-offs cannot be removed in every situation. The worst-case scenario is that a charge-off remains on your credit report for seven years from the date the account first became delinquent.
Negative information matters less as it ages, so don't be discouraged if you can't successfully have all of your charge-offs eliminated. I can tell you firsthand that it's possible to build a decent credit score even if you have old charge-offs on your credit report. In fact, when I was in the process of repairing my own credit years ago, my FICO® Score reached 700 -- about average credit -- before my last charge-off dropped off.
As a final thought, while the process of dealing with collectors and charge-offs can be lengthy and downright frustrating at times, don't get discouraged. It'll be a great feeling to start seeing the results of your efforts in the form of a gradually-rising credit score -- I know from experience.
After destroying my own credit in college nearly 20 years ago, I went through this process myself. Not only did I learn the ins and outs of doing damage control on a credit report, but I also gained an appreciation for good credit behavior and using the FICO methodology to my advantage. These days, I'm well in the realm of excellent credit, and I feel that it's because I learned the hard way.
In short -- learn from your mistakes. Strong credit can literally save you thousands of dollars in interest charges and can allow you to take financial steps that could otherwise be impossible. The road to effective and lasting credit repair is a marathon, not a sprint. Do it right, and you'll be glad you did.
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