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Your golden years are meant to be a time to relax and enjoy life. However, if you are like many Americans, you are stressed out about debt.

Older Americans – aged 50 and over – carried the burden of nearly half of total debt in 2020, according to the US Government Accountability Office. The Social Security Administration cites the normal retirement age at 67, but this can be difficult for many people to achieve due to money issues.

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If you’re facing debt collection issues, Sean Fox, president and chief revenue officer of Freedom Debt Relief in San Mateo, Calif., Said it’s important to determine if you’re being contacted for a legitimate debt.

“Most businesses will eventually send any overdue debt to collection, regardless of (the) amount – usually more than a few hundred dollars – but some hold them ‘in-house’ much longer than others,” a- he declared. “Since most collection agencies receive a percentage of what they collect, there are no upfront or refundable fees. “

Fox said the only major downside businesses face in referring an account to collections is the risk of alienating customers. He recommended visiting the Federal Trade Commission website – which enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act – to learn about the legal limits on debt collection.

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He said it is also advisable to deal with any disputes – i.e. invalid claims – in writing.

“If the agency continues to call or send collection notices, the consumer can file a complaint with his (or) state’s attorney general’s office and with the FTC,” Fox said. “Additionally, the consumer can dispute the account with major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, TransUnion – and see if the item is reported.”

Fox said that if you notify the collection agency in writing to stop calling, the FDCPA will oblige them to honor your request.

When communicating with the debt collectors, he said you don’t have to respond immediately. He noted that you can also ask them to call you back at another time.

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“If you are still working and they contact you at your job – or some other location – you can formally request that they do not call you there,” he said. “You can also write to ask them to cease and desist from contacting you – although this does not eliminate any debt you owe.”

The courts will only play a role in the collection process if a creditor refers the account to an attorney licensed to practice law in your state, Fox said. They would then need to file a lawsuit against you for the outstanding debt.

Fox advised to arrange payment where possible.

“Original creditors can often be easier to deal with – and less intimidating – for the consumer,” he said. “Once the creditor sends the case to a collection agency, the agency is quite limited in what they can do – that is, call and send letters asking for payment.”

If you are able to arrange at least part of the payment, he said you will need to contact the collector directly to make an arrangement.

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Manage your debt

“Carefully assess if there is a way for you to pay off the debt on your own,” Fox said. “With the help of a good, but simple budget, can you see if there is an amount that you can spend on debt each month? “

He recommended using the avalanche plan or snowball to pay off your debt.

“If you have credit card accounts with high interest rates, a personal loan from an independent lender can offer rates much lower than those from those credit cards,” Fox said. “You can consolidate your debts and pay them off with the personal loan, which has a strict repayment schedule.”

If you have credit card debt – but still have good credit – he said you could try to get a balance transfer to a low or no interest credit card.

“Because the promotional interest rate will expire, usually in six to 12 months, you must (be able) to pay the balance in full by that date,” he said. “Plus, the fees can be steep, so be sure to read the fine print when calculating the balance transfer fee and make sure the fees don’t outweigh the savings from the transfer.”

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He said you might also want to consider debt settlement.

“For someone who has difficulty making even minimal payments and who has suffered financial hardship – such as job loss, major medical expenses, divorce, death of a loved one – this could be a option, ”Fox said. “Companies that offer debt settlement are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and work on behalf of an individual to reduce principal balances. “

Alternatively, he said you could also go for debt management – that is, credit counseling – if you think you can get a slightly lower interest rate on your credit cards.

“Debt management plans used by credit counseling agencies lower the rate, and therefore the monthly payment,” he said. “The programs usually last about five years. “

Fighting debt collection might seem like an uphill battle, but you can do it. Find a strategy that fits your unique situation and stick to it to make your debt problem a thing of the past.

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Last updated: June 11, 2021

This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: What Older Americans Can Do to Help With Debt Collection Problems