Are you falling behind on credit card payments and worried about dealing with debt collectors? Read this guide to find out how you can take control of the debt collection process.
If you have been struggling with credit card debt for a while, it’s important to consider the possibility that a debt collector could become involved. It’s their job to follow up and settle debts if the credit card issuer decides to enter the debt collection process.
In some cases, the tactics debt collectors use to contact you and negotiate payments can be intimidating, so it is important to know your legal rights and options throughout this process.
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What should I do if I can’t pay back my credit card debt?
When you are having trouble making credit card payments, there are a few options you can consider either before or after a debt collector gets involved. The steps you can take include:
- Contacting your credit card issuer. Let your issuer know about challenges or changes in your circumstances so they can work with you to arrange a repayment plan. Many credit card issuers have support and hardship officers available to help you work through these difficulties before things get even more out of hand, so it’s important to contact them as soon as you can.
- Applying for hardship variation. This is a formal request for changes to the terms and conditions of the loan (in this case, your credit card). You can apply for hardship variation if you are experiencing difficulties such as illness, unemployment or changed financial circumstances. Contact your credit card issuer in writing or over the phone, explain your difficulties, how long you think they will continue and how much you can afford to pay off the card. The issuer will then have to respond within 21 days of your request with the outcome of your request and your different options.
- Talking to a financial counsellor. Financial counsellors can give you specialised advice based on your situation, and may also negotiate with lenders on your behalf. The Financial Counselling Australia website has more information about these services and also includes a “Find a counsellor” section if you want to get in contact with someone near you.
- Seeking free legal help. There are community legal centres and free legal aid services across Australia, such as Legal Aid NSW and Victoria Legal Aid. The government’s MoneySmart website has a whole list of free legal services you can access when you need support and guidance about your debts.
Any of these options will give you a clearer idea of your rights and responsibilities, as well as ways to move forward and deal with the debt. It’s also important to remember that the sooner you deal with credit card debt issues, the better chance you have of working out payment terms that will fit with your circumstances.
When will debt collectors get involved?
Debt collectors usually won’t get involved straight away. In most cases, your credit card issuer will contact you directly about the debt until more than 60 days have passed with no payment. Once that happens, the account is considered “in default”, and your issuer can choose whether or not to enter the debt collection process.
Some issuers may continue to contact you directly after your account is in default, but they also have the option of using a debt collector to deal with the situation.
What can debt collectors do if I owe money?
Debt collectors will contact you to discuss your credit card debt and different payment options. The way they contact you varies, but can include:
- Phone calls
- Social media
- In person
Debt collectors may use one or a combination of these contact methods to get in touch with you but there are also legal rights and limitations to the amount of contact they can have with you.
For example, they can only contact you by phone or mail up to three times a week or 10 times per month and may only make phone contact between 7:30am and 9pm on weekdays or between 9am and 9pm on weekends. Debt collectors are also not allowed to contact you on public holidays and are advised to avoid face-to-face meetings as much as possible.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has a general guide to the conditions and requirements debt collectors should meet when dealing with individuals and it’s a good idea to refer to this information if you think the contact you receive is unreasonable.
What else can debt collectors do to get the money you owe?
If written, phone or face-to-face contact does not lead to an agreement between you and the debt collector, they have two other options:
- Legal action. If your debt exceeds $3,000 and you don’t pay by a given time, the debt collector or provider can consider initiating legal action. If the debt process gets to this stage and you end up losing the case, the ruling makes it onto your credit file.
- Repossession or bankruptcy. If your debt is significant, your credit card provider or a debt collection agency can initiate proceedings to repossess some of your assets or even lead you towards bankruptcy. If a bankruptcy ruling makes it to your credit file, it will make borrowing money in the future very difficult.
Your rights when dealing with debt collectors
It can be confronting to be contacted by a debt collector, so it’s important to know exactly what your rights are if they ever contact you. Some of the key things to keep in mind include:
- Privacy. Debt collectors cannot let other people know about your situation without your permission. That means they cannot reveal that they are debt collectors to anyone else connected to you in person, over the phone or on social media. In fact, if they use social media or email to contact you, they must be reasonably sure the account is private. If you ever believe a debt collector has violated your privacy you can report it to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
- Contact on public holidays. Debt collectors are not allowed to make contact with you on a public holiday unless you have agreed to it.
- In person contact. A debt collector should only visit you face-to-face if they have unsuccessfully tried to contact you via phone or in writing. If they do show up, they have a legal obligation to treat you and anyone else present with respect. They should also leave immediately if you ask them to.
- Behaviour. Debt collectors should always treat you with respect and be polite. It is illegal for debt collectors to force, trespass, intimidate or harass you, and they cannot make false statements about you or the debt you owe.
- Negotiations. You have a right to discuss your circumstances with the debt collector and to suggest reasonable repayment terms.
- Disputing the debt. If you do not believe the debt is yours or if you disagree with the amount that is owed, you have a right to legally dispute it. The ACCC has detailed information on the different ways you can dispute debts based on different circumstances.
- Advice. You have a right, at any time, to seek legal advice to deal with a debt. In some cases, you may want to inform the debt collector that you plan to seek legal advice and suggest a time for them to contact you or a representative who will speak to them on your behalf.
If you ever feel that a debt collector has mistreated you, then you should make a formal written complaint to the debt collection agency. You can also contact the ACCC or the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) for further guidance and support.
Frequently asked questions
If my credit card debt is passed on to a debt collector, will I still have to pay an interest rate on the amount I owe?
Debt collectors will set up a debt payment agreement with you through their agency. There may be an interest rate depending on the particular debt agency, although generally there is only an agreed amount and payment term.
I have unpaid credit card debt but plan to remain overseas for the next few years. Do I have to repay my debt?
It is ideal that you repay your debt before you leave or as soon as possible, because the process to collect the outstanding debt does not change owing to your non-presence in Australia. When you return, you could have a ruling of repossession or bankruptcy staring you in the face.
How much time does a default remain on my credit file?
In general, a default can stay on your credit file for up to five years, even if you have settled the account in that time. However, if you have a default that is considered “a serious credit infringement” it could be listed on your credit file for up to seven years.
If I have a savings account with the same bank where I have a credit card debt, can it withdraw money from my savings account?
The bank can do this only if it has the required permission through a court ruling.
If you have unpaid credit card debt and have not addressed it with your issuer, then they could consider using a debt collector to settle the account. While it can be confronting to go through the debt collection process, learning more about it and understanding your rights and responsibilities will help you resolve the situation as quickly and reasonably as possible for everyone involved.