Liz Weston: Refusing to pay could hurt you
Oh, the injustice of it all.
Who among us hasn’t felt abused as a consumer? We get billed for stuff we didn’t receive, or that doesn’t work, or that didn’t live up to its hype. Companies charge us unexpected fees and insist the costs were revealed in the fine print. Health insurers take customer disservice to a whole new, awful level, inexplicably refusing to pay for services they promised to cover and deluging us with impossible-to-decrypt paperwork.
It’s understandable if you feel that enough is enough. But taking a righteous stand against paying an unfair bill can boomerang on you – hard.
Here are some situations where you might be tempted to refuse to pay, and what you might want to consider doing instead.
Several years ago a friend refused to pay a bill for internet service that didn’t work. The collection account that later appeared on his credit reports nearly cost him a job offer. (He paid off the collection and wound up taking a job with a different employer.)
The balance of power is tilted heavily in favor of companies and collection agencies that can report an unpaid bill to the credit bureaus. You can include a 100-word dispute in your credit files, but good luck getting anyone to read it. The credit scores most lenders and insurers use don’t factor in those statements. Employers, who typically use credit reports rather than scores to evaluate applicants, may see your statement, but it may not affect hiring, firing or promotion decisions.
■What to do instead: Settle disputes before a bill goes to collections. Consider asking a government regulator for help (search for “Who regulates (company name)?” to find the agency) or turning to a lawmaker whose staff can help with constituent disputes. As a last resort, consider paying the bill, then suing the company in small claims court.
If you used a credit card to pay the bill, you’re in luck. Credit card users have a powerful, built-in weapon to deal with shoddy services or goods – the chargeback . A chargeback, which reverses a payment to a merchant, prevents damage to your credit report for nonpayment while a dispute is resolved.
For about 43 million people, or 1 out of 5 credit reports, there’s overdue medical debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For 15 million people, medical bills are the only overdue debt on their credit reports.
Clearly, many of us are having trouble paying our medical bills – or thinking they have been paid when they haven’t, since many ricochet between health care providers and insurers. The latest versions of the FICO and VantageScore credit scoring models treat medical debt less harshly than other collections, but most lenders use older versions of the scores. The toll can be significant: A single collection account can drop a 680 FICO score by 40 points and a 780 score by 100 points.
■What to do instead: If you have health insurance, follow up on every medical bill you receive to make sure it gets paid. If you don’t have insurance or can’t pay your bill, ask health care providers if they have charity programs or payment plans that could make the costs more manageable.
Federal student loans
Only half of recent graduates strongly agreed that college was worth the cost, a 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index poll found. That may explain why about 1 in 10 borrowers who were scheduled to start paying their federal student loans in 2013-14 have defaulted instead, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Refusing to pay your loans is shortsighted. The default hurts your credit scores, which will make other borrowing difficult and can increase the cost of items like car insurance and cell phone plans. But that’s just the start. Government collectors can seize your tax refund, take a portion of your wages without going to court and literally pursue you to the grave. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a portion of Social Security benefits, which are typically off-limits to creditors, could be seized to repay delinquent federal student loans.
■What to do instead: The education department offers several affordable repayment options , including an income-based plan that can reduce required payments to zero. Struggling borrowers can find plenty of information at the education department’s Federal Student Aid site . For private student loans, consider calling the loan servicer directly to ask about options such as interest-only payments.
NerdWallet:How to choose a student loan repayment plan
Federal Student Aid:Guide to repaying federal student loans
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