For older accounts, make sure you understand whether the statute of limitations has expired. If a collector tries to sue you for a debt that is outside this time frame -- usually four to six years, but longer in some cases -- you can raise the statute of limitations as a defense against the lawsuit. Making a payment, even for a small amount, on debt outside the statute of limitations, however, will usually start the clock ticking again. That means you could open yourself up to a lawsuit at a later date.

One of our readers, Melissa, shared her experience with this:
I had a $100 collection account for a medical bill on my credit report that I wanted to pay off. I called the hospital that was listed as the creditor and they said they couldn't find my account. A day, and about six phone calls to various companies, later -- I found my debt. It was with a company called NCO Financial. They informed me that my balance was actually $871, a $100 debt for my minor daughter (that I was aware of) and a $771 for myself that I had forgotten about and is NOT listed on my credit report. I paid the $100 and told them the $771 from date-of-service 2005 was past the statute of limitations and that I would not be paying it.

Step 3: Pay What You Can

Your next step is to set a budget for resolving these accounts. This means taking a careful look at your income and expenses to figure out how much you can afford to pay. The best deals will be struck when you have saved up cash to settle. If all you can afford is a very small payment on a very large debt, then you may be better off talking with a bankruptcy attorney. "If you are not in a position to follow through with any arrangement, wait until you are better prepared financially to strike a deal," Bovee advises.

Once you know your budget, you can start contacting collectors to try to settle. "When you are prepared financially to resolve older collection debts, it is often best to make contact with collectors by telephone," Bovee warns. "Letter writing campaigns to collection agencies are not all that effective."

We often hear the question, "How much should I offer?" The answer is to try to pay what you can afford. But it doesn't hurt to start your negotiations lower than that so you have room to haggle. "Getting collectors to settle a debt for 'pennies on the dollar' is not that common," says Bovee. "But a few 'dimes on the dollar' is. The approach you take, and the amount you need to be prepared to pay, will vary from one account, or one collector to the next."

Step 4: Make Payments Carefully

Whether you are paying the balance in full or negotiating a smaller payment, you want to get an agreement in writing from the collection agency before you pay it.