The Credit Blemish That’s Surprisingly Difficult to Remove
Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Bankruptcies, Foreclosures, Debt Settlements (e.g., short sale), and Tax Liens can cause some serious damage to your credit score and can take years before they are removed. A lesser known, but almost as damaging and much more common blemish, is an account sent to Collections.
Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience. Earlier this year, I received a credit report notification that there was a “potentially negative account” added to my report. Impossible! My credit was stellar. I made all payments on time and had a score well into the 800s (highest range possible). When I viewed my report, there was a medical bill from 1-1/2 years ago that had been sent to collections. In addition, my credit score dropped well over 100 points. I was shocked because I never received nor was I notified that this bill even existed! We moved a few times and no one called me, so all bills after a certain time period had gotten lost in the mail. Also, the collections agency never reached out to me. This is quite the opposite of what most folks experience!
Sadly, I have found that this occurrence is quite common. And surprisingly, your first step is NOT to pay it. At least not right away. Why? Because collections will stay on your credit report for up to 7 years, even if you pay it! Read on to find out what you should do, whether or not you have heard from the collections agency.
1. (TRY TO) REMOVE THE ACCOUNT
Removing a collections account from your report is very different than having the collection show as Paid. Yes, you may get a small bump in your score, but you will lose any leverage with the collections agency. Once you pay, you are essentially validating the debt and giving up your rights to dispute it or remove it in the future. Your first step is to request a Debt Verification Letter from the collections agency. Consumer protection laws require all debt creditors to provide this letter to you, if requested. If the letter is not received within 30 days, the collection should be removed from your report. The CFPB (Consumer Finance Protection Board) has templates you can use: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/what-if-i-believe-i-do-not-owe-the-debt-or-i-want-more-information-about-the-debt-en-1403/
2. KEEP GOOD RECORDS
When you send a letter requesting a Debt Verification Letter from the collector, it will be helpful to send it certified or with a tracking number so you can prove when it was sent and when it arrived. This will start the 30-day clock. If you never receive a letter back, you can send your proof, along with a memo to each of the 3 credit bureaus, explaining you requested a Debt Verification Letter, but never received it and request that the debt be removed. Hopefully, you can stop here and they do what you request. If you get a Debt Verification Letter from the creditor, you can still dispute it if you were never contacted by the collections agency or the original creditor who sent you the bill. In other words, you weren’t aware of any debt owed. If the bureau finds that after the dispute the debt is valid, ask them to furnish you with the “proof” that they received. If they do not, you can file a complaint with the CFPB: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/getting-started/
3. PAY OFF THE DEBT
DO NOT forget this step! Once a collection is removed from your report, the collections agency may sell the debt to someone else. And guess what? The item goes right back on your report and you start over. That’s a lot of wasted effort! Instead, call the collections agency and offer to settle the debt, but do not offer full price. These companies buy your debt for pennies on the dollar, so start low, like really low. If they agree to your price, GET IT IN WRITING before you pay.
If you already paid the debt before taking any of the steps above, you could try sending a Goodwill Letter to the creditor asking them to remove it from your report. They do not have to do this, but they may be more open to it, particularly if the debt is older. It's worth a try (and the cost of postage) if it gets removed.
4. PAY TO DELETE (LAST RESORT)
If you are unable to remove the debt using the steps above, you can also try what is known as “Pay to Delete.” That means you offer to pay the collection (not necessarily the full amount because this is still negotiable), if the agency removes it from your report. Again, GET THIS IN WRITING before you make any payments. Remember, it will stay on your report for up to 7 years - paid or not. Also it's worthy to note that a debt collector is under no obligation to agree to your “pay to delete” terms, but it might be in their best interest if they believe they are going to get something from you.
Hopefully, this gives you some better leverage against collections agencies. It is an especially unfortunate circumstance when you never knew about the debt, like in my case. I am still working through the process I highlighted above and so far I am happy to report that one of the bureaus removed it from my report!
Your credit score and credit history should be one of your most prized financial possessions and could save you (or cost you) thousands of dollars over your lifetime. To start, ensure you sign up for credit monitoring so you are aware if anything unexpected shows up (most services are free). You can also request your credit report for free on www.annualcreditreport.com. Do this once per year. Remember, you have a right to understand and have all information available when someone claims you owe a debt, especially when you are being harassed. This is why consumer protection laws were created. Keep good records, get everything in writing, and keep these tips in your back pocket if (or when) a pesky, unexpected account shows up on your credit report. Good luck!
Acknowledgement: A big THANK YOU to Dani Saks of www.saksofsavings.com for your invaluable advice on this topic!