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Debt Collectors Killing Your Credit?

NEW YORK ( Credit.com) --"I want to clean up my credit. How do I take care of collection accounts?" It's a question we hear often, often from readers like Kim, who wrote on the Credit.com blog:

I have to admit that I have a few collection accounts... Until a year ago, I just stuck my head in the sand and completely ignored the debt because it seemed too overwhelming to tackle. But now I'm trying to face my fears and eventually reclaim my "good/excellent" credit score standing.

If your credit report lists one or more collection accounts, here's how to tackle them in five steps.

Step 1: Figure Out Who You Owe

This may sound simple enough, but if more than one of your accounts has gone into collections, or if any of those accounts are older, it can get confusing. An account may have changed hands, for example, or you may not have heard from anyone about a debt for a while so you aren't sure where it stands.

"Debts that remain unpaid long enough will get assigned out to many different collection agencies, or sold to a debt buyer who may use outside collection agencies," explains Michael Bovee, founder of the Consumer Recovery Network, which publishes a free guide to debt settlement. "Debts can often be sold multiple times. During these later stages of debt collection you can receive letters and calls from half a dozen or more agencies. This can make it tough to determine who it is you should contact to resolve an old collection account."

He suggests several approaches to tracking down what you owe:

  • Contact the original creditor to find out whether they have placed it with a collection agency. The original creditor is the company to which you first owed the debt; a credit card issuer, cell phone company, a hospital or a bank, for example. If they tell you they have sold it, then ask for the name of the collection agency to whom they sold it. Keep in mind, though, that the agency may have since sold it to yet another collection agency.
  • Check your credit reports to see what collection accounts are listed. Bovee also suggests looking at the inquiries section of your report to see if it lists any inquiries from debt buyers or bill collectors. "Get your annual free credit report from all three credit bureaus. They may not all be the same," warns Mark Neeb, president and CEO of debt collection agency The Affiliated Group, and past president of ACA International. "There may be collection items that appear on one (report) but not on another." Your credit report should list contact information for each company that is reporting information. If it doesn't, and you can't figure out how to contact the collector, ask the credit reporting agency to provide it. (You can download your three main credit reports once a year for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.)
  • Check your mail for collection notices. Keep copies of any letters you receive while you sort out how much and whom you owe. If you receive a collection letter about a debt you don't recognize, or aren't sure the amount is correct, write to the agency immediately and dispute the debt. Under federal law you have the right to request validation of the debt.

If you are dealing with more than one account, it's a good idea to make a list of all the collection accounts you have identified through this process: the name of the agency, the original creditor, the current balance, and the date you defaulted with the original creditor.

If you decide to call a bill collector, grab a pen and paper first. "Take detailed notes," says credit coach and Credit.com Contributor Jeanne Kelly. "You want to make sure it is an accurate bill. Take people's names, extension, where they are located so you know who you have spoken to when you need to follow up." Keep those notes in a file along with any correspondence, copies of your credit reports, etc. Plan on holding onto this file for a long time, just in case.

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