35% of Americans Have a Debt in Collection

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — We are becoming a nation of deadbeats.

That is the stark takeaway from a new report on the nation's personal debt issued by the Urban Institute. According to the data in "Delinquent Debt in America," 77 million of us - 35% - have a debt in collection, with the average debt amount at $5,178.

Nearly 12 million of us - 5.3% - have a debt that is at least 30 days behind. The average debt in serious arrears is $2,258.

Don't think this does not mean you.

"This report is a wakeup call," said Long Island lawyer Leslie Tayne, who specializes in debt relief. "It could be you. When was the last time you pulled your own credit report? You need to check once a year."

A lot of ignored debt, said Tayne, is for little stuff - unpaid medical co-pays or a health club memberships you jilted. The culprit could even be monthly account fees for a checking account you believed you closed by emptying out but you never formally terminated; now the institution is seeking to collect on that $14 per month you owe.

It is easy to be oblivious to that debt, said Tayne. If the amounts are "small" - generally under $500, she said - there ordinarily will not be vigorous collection. But the debt gets slapped on the debtor's credit report until it "times out," a term of legal art with different meanings in different states (generally three to seven years).

Of real interest: today's debt implosion is not necessarily a byproduct of the economic meltdown that occurred in 2008. It may not even be significantly higher than it typically has been in U.S. history. Reported the Urban Institute: "An alarming 35% of people with credit files have debt in collections reported in these files. This percentage is nearly identical to results from a 2004 analysis of credit bureau data by the Federal Reserve, which found that 36.5% of people with credit reports had debt in collections reported in their files."

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