Debt collectors work on behalf of lenders. Because you're not directly involved with the sale or assignment of your debt to a collection agency, you won't always know which collection agency has your debt.
Debt collectors typically announce themselves by contacting you through phone calls, letters, or other means. However, when you know you have an account in collections but don't know which agency has the debt, there are four ways you can find out.
Asking the Original Lender
The lender you originally had the account with may be able to tell you which collection agency purchased or otherwise acquired your account. However, it's also possible the account has been transferred to a third agency, and in that case, your original lender is unlikely to be of assistance.
Before paying, ask the debt collector to send proof of the debt in the form of a written debt validation letter.
It's also possible the original lender will not accept payment from you or even discuss the account with you. Once a lender sells a debt, there's often very little they can do to settle the account. To make a payment, you'll likely need to contact the collection agency to find out what you owe and how to pay the balance.
Checking Your Credit Report
Most collection agencies report debts to the credit bureaus, so you may find the name and phone number you need on a recent copy of your credit report. Collections that are brand new or that are more than seven years old might not show up on your credit report.
There’s no way to know whether a particular collection agency reported your debt to one credit bureau or all three, so it may be necessary to check your credit reports with each of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Checking Your Voicemail and Caller ID
Legitimate debt collectors will leave a voicemail and contact information if they cannot reach you directly on the phone. You also can locate a collection agency with just the phone number from your caller ID or voicemail by typing the number into a search engine. The search result may contain results from websites where other people have shared information about who called from that number and the nature of the call.
Be careful about calling debt collectors without first preparing. Expect the collector to attempt to collect payment from you once they get you on the phone.
Some collection agencies handle only specific types of debt, such as medical debt or past-due cable bills. Searching the phone number of the collection agency can help you figure out whom you owe money to and why.
Waiting for Them to Call You
If you are unable to find the information yourself, sometimes the best thing to do is to wait for the collector to contact you by phone or letter. The agency that holds the debt eventually will get around to contacting you in order to get the money it is owed.
While awaiting the inevitable phone call, it's important to be aware of your rights. A collector who calls you must be willing to provide you with the name of the creditor and the amount owed, and inform you that you have the right to dispute the debt.
Negotiating With a Collection Agency
Once you have determined who is trying to collect on your debt, you have to have a plan for settling the account. If the collector has purchased the debt from the original lender, it's important to understand that it likely did so for only pennies on the dollar. For example, it's not uncommon for a debt buyer to purchase a $10,000 debt for less than $1,000. The original lender gets some money that way, and the new owner of the debt can make a profit for anything it collects in excess of the purchase price.
Consult with an attorney if you have any questions or concerns about a debt you are trying to settle. Statutes of limitations and other regulations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and legal advice specific to your situation can save you a lot of money.
Many collectors will accept less than the balance owed in order to settle the account. However, before paying any money toward such a settlement, it's important to require the collector to provide the terms of the deal in writing. Failing to do so means that the collector can continue to come after you for money, regardless of what someone may have said over the phone.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do you figure out whether a debt collector is legitimate?
If someone reaches out and claims to be a debt collector, ask for as much detail as you can about the collection agency, including phone numbers, street addresses, and license numbers if you live in a state that licenses collection agencies. Check that information with your Secretary of state's office or any other state regulatory authority that tracks these businesses.
What happens if you don't pay a collection agency?
Ignoring debt can be detrimental to your credit score, and the collection agency can sue to garnish wages or seize assets in lieu of debt payment. That, in turn, affects your ability to access financial products, and when you are offered a loan or line of credit, it will likely come with a high-interest rate. Bad credit scores may also affect the way potential employers view your application.
How long do you have before a collection agency reports to credit bureaus?
It's up to lenders and debt collectors as to when they report your information to credit bureaus. However, if your debt has been handed over to a collection agency, you should expect that information to be reported almost immediately. Grace periods are typically reserved for those with an otherwise good credit history, such as someone who missed a single payment and settled it within a few days.