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Get a call from a debt collector? Don’t panic

Sienna Kossman

I’ve always been super careful about paying all my bills on time. So last week when I answered a call from an unknown number only to learn it was a debt collector, my stomach dropped.

If there was ever a time for “Jaws” music to play behind a blog post, now would be it.

The collector said she was from an agency in Florida and the property manager of my former apartment complex in Texas had sent my final bill to them, noting it as unpaid.

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I was instantly confused. I moved out of my old apartment May 8, received my final bill on May 23 and sent the property manager a money order for the tiny $60.07 final utility bill on June 5. It was now June 23. Something was wrong.

I explained this, but the collector insisted that’s not what their records said. However, if I could send them proof of payment and any other account closing details I had, she would transfer the file to her supervisor and he would look into it.

Panicking, I thanked her and hung up, hoping that — fingers crossed — the money order receipt was in the unsorted pile of important papers I’ve accumulated since moving last month.

Within 15 minutes I located the receipt and the final bill that noted the due dates. I quickly scanned the documents and emailed them to the agency.

And then I waited. A couple hours went by and all I could think was, “What if the check got lost in the mail? What if I sent it to the wrong place and they really never got it? What if this gets reported to the credit bureaus?”

And then I received a call from another unknown Florida number. This time it was the collection agency manager, who said he’d received my materials and they were closing the case and would not report anything to the credit bureaus. Phew!

While I’m still not sure what caused this situation, I know it wasn’t my fault. I paid my bill and for some reason, my old property manager was not up to speed. (Note: I’ve tried to contact him since this happened. No response. I’ve never received mail about this either, from anyone.)

If debt collectors are already calling or you just want to be prepared for the worst, here are some tips for handling a debt collection phone call:

1. Save all bills, payment records.

If you’ll soon be closing an account, make sure you have all the information pertaining to any relevant debts organized before and after you make the final payment. Create a cellphone alert or put a Post-it reminder on your desk so you don’t forget to address the debt when it comes due.

If you’ve already paid the bill, don’t discard relevant debt documents just yet. You may have all your ducks in a row but if others don’t, it’s your word against a debt collector’s file.

2. Make sure the debt collection agency is legit.

I’m extra sensitive (read: slightly paranoid) to security issues, knowing that there are plenty of collection scams out there. After I got off the phone with the debt collector, I searched online for the name of the agency to see if it was a legit collections call. Sure enough, the name, number and location matched. So did the manager’s name. At that point I knew I had to take action, but felt comfortable sending them the requested payment information.

Just to be safe, do a quick search within the Better Business Bureau database before addressing any debt collection request.

3. Be nice to the collector.

The debt collector who called me was extremely nice. It wasn’t a fun phone call, but she didn’t make me feel bad or sound menacing, two things I previously thought debt collectors did.

I was panicking, but I tried to be polite and listen. After all, it wasn’t her fault I was getting the call; she was just doing her job. In hindsight, I think I feel better about the whole situation because while the call wasn’t good, it wasn’t anger-inducing experience.

If you can, just listen, respond and be nice — even if the collector isn’t. No need to make a stressful situation more stressful. However, if you feel a collector is harassing or threatening, check to make sure the collector is following the rules. If not, report it to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

4. Check your credit report.

Once you get off the phone with the debt collector, pull a copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com. This is especially important if you think the collector is calling you in error. Make sure nothing erroneous is on your credit file causing this situation, such as debts that aren’t actually yours or that are listed as the wrong amounts. If you find an error, begin the dispute process. If not, go back and review your own records.

Once your case is resolved, pull another copy of your report about 30 days later to make sure there is no late or nonpayment mark. I was told my case didn’t get reported, but I’m still going to check my credit report in a couple weeks to make sure nothing happened. Fingers crossed (again) I don’t face any more surprises.

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