Right now, there are folks who cringe when their telephones ring.
These people get a sick feeling knowing that the caller is likely a creditor trying to collect on an overdue bill.
One thing you shouldn't do is let the phone keep ringing or go to voice mail. Even if you don't have the money to pay the debt, let the collection agency or attorney know your circumstances, says Bob Markoff, president of the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys.
"We might be able to talk to you and find a way to set up something that fits your budget," Markoff said. "The consumer has the right to pay whatever they can pay."
If you do answer, don't be pressured to pay an amount you truly can't afford. Only agree to a payment plan that you can really stick with.
Having said that, Markoff warns that you shouldn't try to duck the debt by claiming you can't afford to pay anything when, with a little belt-tightening, you actually could. Debt collectors can check your credit files to see if you've bought a new home or car, have cable service, or have made recent purchases on credit.
In many cases, you can negotiate to settle the debt for less than you owe, Markoff said. The key to such negotiations is cash.
Let's say you have an old debt that has ballooned to $5,000 with fees, interest, etc. Offering to pay $10 a month probably isn't going to fly. But if you offer $1,500 in a lump sum, you have a better chance for a settlement.
After you've settled the debt, keep a record of the payoff and all your correspondence. My advice: Hang on to the paperwork forever. Years later, you might start getting telephone calls about a debt you have long since settled.
Here are some other tips from the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys:
¢ Don't be intimidated into paying a debt that is not yours. You have the right to request verification of the debt. If there has been a mix-up or you are the victim of identity theft, be prepared to show proof. For example, with identity theft, you will probably be asked for a police report.
¢ If you have a lawyer, have him or her contact the collection attorney. Once this step is taken, the collection attorney can only communicate with your attorney, not directly with you.
¢ Don't ignore a summons from a court. Markoff said if you contact the creditor before the court date, you may be able to avoid legal action by working out a payment plan.