Prater recommends people call their issuers as soon as they realize they're in trouble, although she acknowledges that this early warning may result in issuers reducing credit limits or freezing accounts. Bovee believes consumers should stay in touch with their credit card companies once they've fallen behind but doesn't recommend signaling distress before then.

The trouble timeline

Here's what you can expect from your credit card companies:

Up to 90 days late: Your credit card issuers will contact you to find out why you haven't paid. Keep your answers simple and brief, Bovee said, such as "I've lost my job and can't pay. I'll be in touch with you when I can pay."

You can say that your income has been cut, but don't discuss the amount of that income or your available assets, Bovee advised. If you're offered a solution that actually works for you, such as a forbearance to tide you over a temporary setback, you can take up your issuer on the offer, he said. Otherwise, keep repeating that you can't pay and will be in touch when you can.

91 to 180 days late: At 90 days, your debt is typically transferred to a recovery department that is better trained to deal with distressed debtors and that is able to offer more options, including possible workout plans, Bovee said, although some issuers transfer the debt earlier, around 60 days. As your debt approaches the six-month mark, many recovery departments will offer settlements.

"You don't start out asking for settlements. You let them bring it up," Bovee said. Once they do, a consumer can reasonably expect to settle for 40 to 50 cents on the dollar, Bovee said. Although having a lump sum to settle your debt will make negotiations easier, you typically can pay a settlement in three monthly installments, he said. The Internal Revenue Service considers forgiven debt to be taxable income, so you should also set aside some money to cover the tax bill.

But don't pass up a deal you can afford hoping to get a better offer, Detweiler warned, because the better offer might not come. "You should pay what you can afford to pay," she said.

181 days to 365 days late: At the six-month point, your issuer charges off your unpaid balance as bad debt and gets a tax break worth about 35% of the charged-off total. The damage done to your scores by a charge-off is similar to what's done by a settlement. The issuer then typically transfers or sells the debt to collectors, either internal or external. When it shows up on your credit reports, the collection account further damages your credit scores.

Collectors tend to be more aggressive in their efforts to get you to pay but also may be willing to settle your account for less than the original creditor. Then again, you may get sued.

"Creditors can file suit prior to charge-off, but it happens very seldom," Bovee said. "While the risk is low in month seven, it increases each month and exponentially after 12 months of nonpayment."

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If you do get sued, you may still be able to settle -- or you may need to seek the protection of bankruptcy court.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.