There's no question that falling behind on bills is a stressful experience. While many people want to pay off their debt as quickly as possible, sometimes it's simply not possible.
Because of medical issues, job loss or other catastrophic events, people may go further into the debt collection process than they ever imagined. Here's what to expect if it happens to you.
If you stop paying your credit card debt, you can expect letters and calls from collectors within days or weeks of your first missed payment. The communication can be frequent and exasperating, but it doesn't usually have any teeth at first.
Beyond six months, debt collectors may decide to continue with calls and letters or to ratchet up the stakes. Ignoring the debt problem will only make it worse, says Lynne Labrador, a senior director at the credit-scoring company FICO.
"People who avoid the phone calls and the letters are more likely to see a lender escalate to aggressive tactics like taking judgments," she says.
Small debts of a few hundred dollars or less won't typically get forceful treatment. But if you've racked up significant debt -- a few thousand dollars -- you shouldn't expect to get off the hook. Debt collectors can sue to get their money.
When a debt collector sues
If a collector sues, you'll get plenty of advance warning. Before the court date, law requires that a person is given adequate notice of legal proceedings. You'll get a demand letter, which is your final notice before litigation begins. Then you'll receive formal notification, known as a summons and complaint, says Labrador. This formal notification is typically served in person or by certified mail. A court date is set.
Debt collectors hope that you won't show up for the proceedings. That will allow them to get a default judgment, which is a judge's decision without a defendant's input because of his or her failure to show, says Robert Brennan, an attorney in La Crescenta, Calif.
"That's the ideal situation, because then they can start collecting on the default. Contested proceedings, on the other hand, can get expensive and time-consuming," Brennan says. It's worth your time to go to court, even without an attorney, so you can tell your side of the story.
If there is a judgment, debt collectors have a number of ways to collect your money.
If you have a job, you can expect that collectors will try to get a piece of your paycheck. To gain access to this money, they'll work with your employer, not you. In wage garnishment, a portion of your wages will be deducted directly from your paycheck.
"Although not all states allow wage garnishment, this is typically the first thing that collectors are going to try since it's the most dependable way for them to get paid," says Gerri Detweiler, co-author of "Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights." At most, collectors can take 25% of disposable earnings after Social Security and taxes.
If debt collectors discover that you have a checking account or savings account, they can serve the bank with a bank levy, and you'll receive notice that the bank has frozen funds on your account, says Labrador. A bank levy is when a bank account is frozen so you cannot access it while creditors take the funds that are owed to them.
"Then you'll have 21 days to tell them why it's not the lender's money. Otherwise, it will be pulled from your account to satisfy the judgment," she says.
With an attachment, collectors can take some types of personal property, such as your car or house, to sell to pay off your debt. But there are a number of restrictions that govern attachments. They usually can't take your car if it's the only one you have, and they can't take the home that you live in. But they can take second homes, second cars and other valuable property such as boats or land, says Detweiler.
Still, you have rights. As you make your way through the debt collection process, keep good records. Get everything in writing, take notes during phone calls and refer to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act if you're concerned about harassment, unfair practices or illegal or deceptive actions taken by collectors. You also can take your complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, says Detweiler.
"The collection industry still generates more complaints to the FTC than any other industry," she says.
Detweiler also recommends talking to an attorney, which doesn't have to be expensive and can help you understand your rights and obligations. "If you have a good case, an attorney may be willing to take your case on a contingency basis," Detweiler says. "It's worth it to at least get a free initial consultation."
Avoid judgments at all costs. Judgments are valid for years and often for decades. They can be renewed if you don't pay the debt or declare bankruptcy, says Labrador. And they will land on your credit report.
Throughout the debt collection process, the best strategy may also be the simplest, says Brennan. "I advise consumers to play by the rules," he says. "If you owe the debt, pay it. If you can't, try to work out a plan to pay it back over time and get it in writing. And when creditors step over the line during the process, don't be afraid to find an attorney who will step in on your behalf."