Archive for February, 2013

Living Paycheck to Paycheck, Debt Collector Wants Too Much to Settle

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Question: Like so many others in this economy, I can barely pay my current bills, so I had to stop paying the minimum on some of my credit cards. The phone calls and final notices for payment from the banks stopped about a year ago, but I just received a letter with a settlement offer from a debt collection company, which also says that I can dispute the debt within 30 days of receipt. What do you suggest? At the end of the month, there is still nothing left over, after regular expenses, living as cheap as we can. I cannot pay the settlement, but I am afraid their next move will be to sue me in court, like your website says. My wages are higher than the bankruptcy means test amount, so I need help.

My response:
As you know, you are not alone. Now, 41% of Americans live each week paycheck to paycheck, according to a recent survey by Allstate, covered in the LA Times Business/Money Section. After several months of no credit card payments, the bank charged off your account as a bad debt. A charge off is an accounting term to show that the debt is probably not collectable, so bank auditors will no longer allow this to be considered an asset of the institution.

At that point, the credit card bank reviewed its uncollectable accounts and sold many of them to a debt collection agency, known in the industry as a “debt buyer.” Either this debt collection agency or another debt collector is now contacting you to settle this debt, which now belongs to them. If you do not settle soon, they may refer the debt to a collection lawyer licensed in California, who will probably file a lawsuit in the Superior Court that covers where you live, if settlement arrangements are not made in writing. I explain the reasons in an article on my website, Understanding Why You Were Sued.

It can be less costly for the consumer to settle when no lawsuit has been filed and the lawyer has not been retained, because the debt buyer has not paid for those costs and fees. However, depending on the debt buyer’s policies, it still may be unaffordable or you may feel that they want too much to settle the debt, which did not cost them much to buy. Bear in mind, however, that if they sue you in court and win a money judgment, the amount will probably be the full balance on one of your last statements, plus accrued interest, court costs, and maybe attorney’s fees. The judgment may then appear on your credit reports and be secured as a lien on any real property (such as your home) by recording an abstract of judgment with the County Clerk or Recorder’s Office. There are numerous other ways that the collection agency’s lawyers can enforce this debt, such as by levying the consumer’s bank account and wage garnishment.

As painful as a settlement would be now, a worse alternative is having to pay this entire account plus interest and attorney’s fees on a money judgment that itself yields 10% interest per year and many costs can be added to the balance. By the same token, I would not accept any settlement offer that the consumer cannot ensure will be paid, exactly as promised. This would only put you in a worse position, as the discount that you negotiated in the settlement will be lost and the payments will merely be applied as credits towards the full balance due.

When agreeing to a debt collection settlement, you as the debtor should know that the collection agency will require you to acknowledge in writing the full balance due. If you miss one or more of the settlement payments, then they will have a much easier time enforcing in court the full unpaid amount of the debt. This would not limited by the settlement amount. This lawsuit would also not be limited by the fact that some debt buyers lack adequate documentation of their debts and it can challenging to obtain the full records for the account.

Your question also asked about a written dispute, because the debt collection letter states that you have the right to get it verified in writing or to dispute it. You may want to access the free consumer letters on my other web site, sample letter #1.1, which contains the language that I recommend for this purpose. Be prepared, however, for a simple letter back from the debt collection agency that says we have verified it. There are court cases that make this an adequate verification of the debt, so they can continue their collection efforts. I am not aware of potential harm from sending the dispute letter, but asking them to verify the debt in writing can make them more “aware” of you.

Robert Stempler
www.StopCollectionLawsuits.com
Twitter @RStempler

Facebook: www.facebook.com/SoCalConsumerLawyer

Calls for an Unpaid Medical Debt by CMRE, but Physician’s Office Said No Outstanding Bills

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Question: I started receiving calls on an unpaid medical debt. The caller ID shows CMRE, which I found online as a debt collection agency in California that collects medical bills for hospitals and physicians. I did not receive anything in writing from them and when I get one of these calls, they immediately ask for my SSN, then hang up when I refused. I have now learned that CMRE shows on my credit report for a few hundred dollars. What can I do to get the calls to stop and the item off my credit, as I have perfect credit? Can I ever get my good credit restored?

My response:
CMRE is a large debt collection agency that collects unpaid medical bills, either because the bill was not covered by the patient’s insurance, the unpaid insurance co-pay, or the patient had no insurance coverage and did not qualify for indigent care. I have dealt with this debt collection agency’s collection efforts against my clients and sometimes had to defend my clients in court from a debt collection lawsuit filed by CMRE’s attorneys.

As a consumer, never reveal your SSN, DOB, or DLN to anyone who calls you, not even to your own bank or broker, because there is too much identity theft and you don’t want to add yourself as another victim of a phone scam. Caller ID’s are convenient, but they do not guarantee the identity of the caller, because identity thieves and other hackers know how to spoof a caller ID. Even hackers may use a caller ID of the police, sheriff, IRS or FBI. The agencies will not call you and ask for your SSN or other information. If you are called and asked to give out your personal numbers, you should check independently that this is a representative of the company that you are doing business with, such as by hanging up, then calling their legitimate number and getting to the extension of the representative.

Start by sending a letter by U.S. Certified Mail to both the physician’s office and CMRE, which address should appear on your credit report. Your letter should be in the form of my free sample letter #1.1, Notice of Dispute and Request for Verification, which I’d send to the debt collection agency. The CMRE letter should state that you never received anything in writing from them.

Your Certified letter to the physician’s office should confirm the conversation that you had with the office manager or billing assistant that they saw no outstanding bills under your name and add a sentence asking that they send you a copy of the bill that they assigned to CMRE. Also, ask them why the bill was not submitted to your insurance company or what the status of the insurance payment is. Be sure to keep a photocopy of the signed letters.

Your dispute letters serve several purposes, including forcing CMRE to indicate the account is disputed with the credit reporting agencies, which should exclude the account from affecting your credit scores. If CMRE does not verify the debt in writing, then they should also stop reporting the account to the credit reporting agencies, or be at risk for violating your rights as a consumer under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Such violations can result in damages and your attorney’s fees being awarded, if you prevail in court.

Your letters also make it clear that their failure to send you the letter required by law does not mean that you will wait for it to arrive some day and not proactively document the situation to protect your rights. In my years of dealing with debt collection agencies, if they fail to provide you with documentation promptly, either they are trying to get you to pay money on an account where there is a problem or their records are so badly screwed up that you will not know if they do anything correctly. Either way, the consumer should not tolerate their credit being harmed and annoying phone calls. Putting your position in writing, with the use of my sample letters, will let you sleep better now that you have firmly put the burden on them to respond in writing and provide you with written documentation.

Robert Stempler
www.StopCollectionLawsuits.com
Twitter @RStempler

Facebook: www.facebook.com/SoCalConsumerLawyer

Collection Call from Out Of The Blue for a Credit Card Not Paid In Five Years

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Question: Is there any chance that I can be prosecuted for not paying credit card from five years ago? I have been clean and on probation and received a call out of the blue that they have sued me for $2000. Help, I need to stay out of jail. They said they would not dismiss until I make a large down payment and sign an agreement for monthly payment until paid in full, but I cannot afford this.

My Response:
I am very suspicious when a consumer gets phone calls from collectors from out of the blue. If I read your question correctly, you have not heard from these people, never received any collection letters from them, and you were not served with the summons and complaint. Though you did not pay this debt in almost five years, there are those debt collection agencies which prey on consumers for old debt that are expired, because of the statute of limitations.

In California, a debt not paid in more than four years is almost always past the statute of limitations, provided that a debt collection lawsuit was not filed within the correct limitations period for the particular account. Thus, the filing of an untimely lawsuit or threatening to sue you for an expired debt also violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) for harassment and misrepresentations. FDCPA violations can allow the consumer-victim to recover in court his or her actual damages, statutory damages, court costs, and attorney’s fees.

Since you have not received anything in writing from this collection agency, please advise this collector that you need something in writing and to send you the required initial letter, which contains the mini-Miranda statement, required by the FDCPA, for initial contacts of a consumer regarding collection of a debt. Verify that they have your correct mailing address. I do not believe that you should give them your cell phone number or email address, to protect your privacy, but you regular mailing address should be fine. You really don’t want them to contact you in too many ways, regular mail and regular phone calls at home are more than sufficient.

Assuming that they did file a debt collection lawsuit within the proper statute of limitations period, you need to get a copy of the lawsuit and understand your options. The first video of my website’s home page is “Understanding Your Options” when sued on a credit card debt. Please watch my video and a few of my blog postings, such as “Next Steps,” which explains what steps to take and the timing involved, so that you will understand the deadlines that are coming up for you. Please consult with a debt collection defense attorney to ensure that you have covered your bases.

The short answer to your question about going to jail for a probation violation is that our society does not have “debtors prisons.” We did away with that at the time we founded this Country. I would want to review the terms of your probation, but it is doubtful that missing payments on a debt or being sued for an unpaid debt would violate probation. Also, I would not tell the debt collection agent about your probation, as it is none of their business. If you discuss this, I can assure you that they will make all sorts of statement to belittle you. If they threaten you with trying to use this to get you in trouble criminally, that may also be a violation of the FDCPA.

Until you verify whether or not a debt collection lawsuit has been filed, I would ask for the documentation of this lawsuit, the debt collection letter, and check with the court’s online to see if you can determine if the documentation is genuine. Also, reviewing your own personal credit reports may help yield information about this debt collection agency and if there are outstanding judgments against you. I have a legal guide on Avvo.com that help people navigate case information that they can get for free or almost free online. Otherwise, you may need to take a trip to the local Superior Courthouse to ask of any civil cases have been filed against you.

When a debt collection agency calls out of the blue, be ready to ask for everything in writing and refuse to give in to their demands for your credit card number or banking information so that they can take your money over the phone. Until you have verified everything, you don’t know if the person on the phone is a scam debt collector or worse: an identity thief, who will take your credit card number to charge your credit to the max and your bank account information to clean out your account. Also, don’t provide this person with your SSN, DOB or DLN. All of these are private and should not be disclosed by phone from someone who happens to call you, even if they appear to know so much about a particular debt or other credit information about you.

A regular debt collection agent will understand and want to ensure that you get the information verified and in writing. A scam artist or identity thief wants you to give them the money now, right now, without anything in writing. Do not give into high-pressure tactics and risk becoming another victim of identity theft or bogus debt collection operations, collecting on time-barred debts.  Verify everything and consult with a lawyer. You could be waiving many rights by agreeing to pay on a time-barred debt from a high-pressure phone call.

Robert Stempler
www.StopCollectionLawsuits.com
Twitter @RStempler

Facebook: www.facebook.com/SoCalConsumerLawyer