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It should come as no surprise that if you fall behind on your bills, you may hear from debt collectors. If they do call, you will almost certainly hear that you need to pay them and that you need to do so immediately. But there are a number of things that they aren't likely to tell you, and knowing these things can make all the difference in resolving your debts.

1. Some of our threats have no teeth

If you can't pay the collector the amount he is demanding, or refuse to give your bank account or debit card number to make the payment, the debt collector may threaten to "put you down for 'refusal to pay.'" But that's "a meaningless phrase in the debt collection world," says founder Charles Phelan, who coaches consumers trying to settle debts. He elaborates:

"When a collector says, 'We are going to inform your creditor that you are refusing to pay this bill,' they are just using reverse psychology. Your creditor has already figured out that you aren't paying the bill, or they would not have sent your account to a collection agency in the first place."

Another example? Bogus deadlines. Says Phelan, "Collectors will always try to create a false sense of urgency by imposing a series of deadlines, after which 'this deal will no longer be available.' The reality is that settlement or workout offers tend to improve over the course of a typical three-month collection assignment."

2. We have to stop bugging you at work if you tell us to

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is very clear on this point. Once you tell a debt collector that your employer doesn't allow you to talk with her while you are at work, she must stop calling you there. Yet in its 2011 Annual Report to Congress about Fair Debt Collection Practices Act complaints, the Federal Trade Commission noted that in 2010 it received 17,008 complaints related to debt-collection calls to consumers at work, up from 11,991 complaints the year before. "By continuing to contact consumers at work under these circumstances, debt collectors may put them in jeopardy of losing their jobs," notes the FTC.

3. We can't blab about your debts to others

Debt collectors are generally allowed to discuss your debt with only you, a co-signer, your spouse or your attorney. They may not discuss your debt with neighbors, relatives who aren't obligated to pay the debt, or co-workers. In fact, they are generally allowed to contact third parties only to locate you, and once they have found you, contact with third parties must stop. Consumer lawyer Sukhman Dhami of the Dhami Law Firm, explains:

"We call these 'third-party disclosures,' a violation of Section 1692c(b) of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and they are exceptionally common, particularly when the debt collector leaves a message on a public answering machine. These public answering machine violations are called 'Foti' violations after the landmark case Foti v. NCO Financial Systems, 2005.

"If a debt collector leaves a message for you on any conventional answering machine or any shared/open-access voicemail system, they are likely to violate the third-party disclosure restrictions per Foti, so save any machine message and/or voicemail which a debt collector leaves for you!"

He goes on to warn, "If a debt collector contacts third parties, we want to know about it, because chances are that the collector violated one or more provisions of the FDCPA."

4. Your debt may be too old for us to do anything about it

"Stale debt is not collectible," advises Atlanta bankruptcy attorney Jonathan Ginsburg. "Every state has a statute of limitations that makes debt of a certain age not collectible. Debt collectors are not currently obligated to advise you that they cannot sue you or legally ding your credit report if you refuse to pay stale debt."

In most states, the statute of limitations runs four to six years from the date you last made a payment. And that's the catch. "In some states, a voluntary payment on a stale debt can revive the debt and make it legally collectible," Ginsberg warns. But don't be surprised if you hear about a very old debt. "Stale (or zombie) debt is big business," he adds.

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"Seniors are constantly targeted for old debts," says Alex Viecco of New Era Debt Solutions. Viecco says his firm is seeing a trend where debts that were the result of identity theft are "coming back around for consumers. They certainly do not remember it, and suddenly (collectors) act as if it was theirs." He says his firm also hears from clients who complain about old medical debts that should have been paid by the insurance company and resurface years later.

"Never admit to any debt without first getting more details," recommends Viecco. At a minimum, you want to establish that the debt is legitimate, you owe it, the collector on the other end of the phone isn't a scammer, and the statute of limitations hasn't expired.

At the same time, don't assume that just because a debt is older it can't be collected, or that it can't affect your credit reports. "There are a handful of states that do require the collector to tell the consumer that they cannot be sued," says Mark Schiffman, director public affairs for ACA International, a trade organization for collections professionals. "While it is true that every state has a statute of limitations, which varies by state and by debt type, and that a collector may not sue or threaten to sue a consumer, the collector may still seek to collect the debt from the consumer so long as it is within the guidelines of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act." He also notes that under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, collection accounts may be reported for seven years.

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