Business Bulletin: How to best handle debt and avoid scams amid the coronavirus | #coronavirus | #scams | #covid19

Q: I am currently unemployed as results of the Coronavirus pandemic. We have debt obligations we cannot pay. What advice may BBB provide?

A: The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended the global economy, disrupted countless companies’ operations and shaken many Americans’ personal finances. Better Business Bureau (BBB) reminds consumers who are concerned about debt obligations to know their rights, take steps to protect their credit and guard against debt collection scams.

Under the recently passed CARES Act, lenders must report to credit bureaus that borrowers are current on their debt obligations if the borrower has sought relief from those obligations because of the pandemic. Many other lenders have already taken proactive steps to help borrowers impacted by this crisis, offering forbearance, loan extensions, and a reduction in interest rates or other forms of flexibility.

If the coronavirus crisis has affected your finances to the point that you’re having difficulty repaying a loan, you should reach out to the lender right away to discuss your options. At the same time, don’t let the current crisis mindset distract you from keeping a close eye on your finances and credit — and don’t fall prey to scammers taking advantage of the crisis.

Consumers who are working with a lender on forbearance or other flexible repayment options should obtain written documentation of such arrangements. They also should monitor their credit report to be sure it accurately reflects their repayment efforts. Consumers can obtain a free credit report from all three major credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — once every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com.

Debt collection scams are common. BBB Scam Tracker received nearly 1,700 reports of this fraud in 2019. The scammer calls and tells you that they work for a loan company, law firm or government agency, claiming to be collecting an overdue payment. They may make threats of suing you, having your wages garnished, arresting you, or forcing you to appear in court thousands of miles from home.

BBB received more than 15,700 complaints about debt collection agencies in 2019. In March 2020, a consumer told BBB she was alerted to a collection on her credit report for an account that did not belong to her. She said when she called the collection agency; its representative was hostile and accused the woman of identity theft before hanging up on her. The woman said the representative did not state her rights as legally required when they spoke.

BBB recommends consumers follow these tips to manage their debt safely and fairly:

Get it in writing. Not only should lenders document their arrangements with you, debt collectors are required by law to provide “validation notice” of your debt in writing. The notice must include the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, and a statement of your rights.

Ask for more information. If you do owe money and aren’t sure if the caller is real, asking for their name, company, street addresses and telephone number. Do not provide any personal or financial information over the phone. A legitimate debt collector should have details on the accounts in question. If the scammer has personal information, place a fraud alert with Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

Think twice about paying for a credit report. While paid credit monitoring is available and multiple credit reports in a year from a single credit bureau may incur a small fee, the only legitimate website for obtaining the free credit report to which you are entitled yearly is AnnualCreditReport.com. Be alert to websites that offer a “free” credit report but charge a fee in the fine print.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga

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