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You just listened to the voice mail, and your heart is in your throat. A debt collector called. What now?

Your next step could be the difference between a manageable bump in the road and a years-long nightmare. So here, we’re going to walk you through these critical first few moments.

When a debt collector calls, a million thoughts race through your mind — everything from “I thought I paid that” to “I thought they forgot.” (Rest assured, very few people forget about unpaid bills nowadays.)

Ultimately, your primary goal should be to pay off your debts as smoothly and quickly as possible — as long as you have the means to do so, and the debt really belongs to you. If not, we’ll deal with those possibilities, too.

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First and foremost, don’t immediately return the phone call. You have a bunch of homework to do first. But do call. Ignoring a debt collector, even one who is calling in violation of the law, is probably the biggest mistake you can make. The problem, whatever it is, will only get bigger. (Learn more about your debt collection rights here.)

Before the Call

First, take a deep breath. Next, grab a pen and notebook. Every interaction you have with a debt collector — and frankly, anyone calling about money — needs to be documented. Play the message again and transcribe it; you just never know what may be useful later. Carefully note the time, date, name of caller and any other specifics. You’ve just begun what some folks call a “collections log.”

When you are done, give it a home right near the phone so you can find it easily next time. Yes, you can do this on a digital file if you like, but only if you’re confident in your typing skills and religiously back up data. You don’t want to lose this.

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Now it’s time to do some research. You want to be as prepared as you can before you talk to the debt collector. That might mean talking to family members about the debt; going to AnnualCreditReport.com to see if the debt is on your credit report; or digging through old mail. Get your ducks in a row, as you want as few surprises as possible. This will also help your brain and your heart slow down.

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During the Call

There are several specific things to do (and not do) during the initial debt collector call, but before we get to that, here are two critical things to keep in mind:

  1. Drive the call. Be active, not passive.
  2. Say as little as possible.

Don’t call only to let a collector bully you or make you uncomfortable. When you know your rights and the truth about the debt, you can do this. Ask the questions. Remember, you don’t have to answer any at this time, but by law the collector does.

From this advice comes the second tenet: Don’t volunteer anything about income, property, or bank accounts. You can agree on a payment plan later. During this first call, you need to get all the data you can about the collector’s claims. One-word answers are fine. Don’t tell sob stories, and definitely don’t make promises like, “I’ll pay,” which could be interpreted as a contract in some cases.

Calculator: How long until my loan is paid off?

As for specifics, here’s what to ask: Get the name of the firm, the creditor and the amount. Ask for a breakdown, if possible. These questions are the beginning of a process called “validation.” Then, tell the collector you want the name and address of the original creditor, along with any account numbers tied to the debt. You can also ask for other evidence the collector may have, such as a judgment. You may have to send a written request to file a formal dispute in order to obtain that information, but debt collectors sometimes offer it straight away.

Do all the above firmly but politely. Remember, you might end up negotiating with the collector. There’s no reason to be rude or hostile — just be firm and say very little.

During this initial call, don’t keep your credit card or checkbook nearby. If the collector makes threats, even veiled ones, like ‘I’m sure you don’t want me to call your workplace about this,” that’s a sign something is wrong, and it’s critical for you to get off the phone as soon as possible.

The biggest don’t of all is not being talked into making some kind of small “good faith” payment towards the debt. That’s often a trick debt collectors use to get consumers to pay debts they don’t legally owe. Any payment can restart the statute of limitations clock, re-aging the debt.

After the Call

The statute of limitations issue is one reason to hang up, digest what you’ve collected and make a thoughtful payment plan. When you get all the information you are legally entitled to, you can then make a plan of action. Again, be active, not passive. If the debt isn’t yours, you can begin the formal debt dispute process. If you feel like the debt is accurate but the late/penalty fees are unfair, you can try to negotiate with the collector or dispute the overages.

If you are ready to start paying but want gentler terms, make a budget and call the collector to make an offer. Hold firm and don’t answer questions like, “How much money do you have in your 401(k)?” Just make your offer.

This is also the time to realistically look at your family budget and decide if you can or can’t pay your bills. If you can’t, consider talking to a bankruptcy attorney before you call the collector back.

The biggest mistake consumers filing for bankruptcy make is filing too late. Many raid retirement accounts or make other foolish last-ditch efforts to pay bills, so they lose assets that could have been preserved in the process.

That debt collector call, however scary, could be a sign it’s time to admit the depth of the problem and the need for dramatic steps to make it right.

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