How soon can a debt collector sue me?

ByGerri Detweiler/Credit.com

It took a debt collector less than a month to sue Credit.com reader, Monique. She received a letter about a past-due debt and then, less than a month later, a court summons. She's made arrangements to pay, but she is worried about how this will affect her credit. "I'm not trying to get out of paying," she said. "I just don't want it on my credit report."

The debt may already be on her credit report. Debt collectors do not need to wait 30 days before reporting a debt to credit reporting agencies. The 30-day verification period is a period during which consumers can seek verification from debt collectors.

Monique can find out whether a particular debt appears on her credit reports by getting a free annual copy of each of her credit reports online at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Consumers can also check credit scores, and the factors that affect them, with Credit.com's free credit report summary, which includes two credit scores and updates monthly. Keeping track of what's in your credit report, and making sure it's accurate, is good credit hygiene and can save you trouble down the road by allowing you to spot and correct any inaccuracies.)

Whether or not the debt appears on the consumer's credit reports, it may be possible to negotiate a debt settlement that covers credit reporting issues. Consumers may wish to consult an attorney for assistance, said National Consumer Law Center Staff Attorney April Kuehnhoff. (We suggest that anyone who is being sued for a debt contact an attorney, and be aware that consumer protections can vary by state. We have some suggestions for defending debt-collection lawsuits here.)

Most of the time, though, late payments are not addressed this aggressively so quickly. Michael Bovee, a Credit.com contributor and founder of the Consumer Recovery Network, said Monique's situation is uncommon.

So how late do you have to be to get sued? Bovee said it depends on the creditor and may also be related to a consumer's past behavior. Large credit card issuers don't typically charge off debts until 180 days go by without a payment, he said, but small, local banks and credit unions may do it sooner than that. After it's charged off, it will typically go to collections, and the collector will usually attempt to get paid before filing suit.

Other triggers for early collection are "when anything out of the ordinary happens with the account, like high credit use through purchases or cash advances immediately preceding the account being paid late," Bovee said.

Or sometimes, it's routine. "There are some types of debts, and certain creditors, who will utilize law firms and collection attorneys for all stages of debt collection," he said. "This can give the appearance that the account is going to the courts earlier than is normal." (But if you receive a summons, it's going to court unless something happens to stop it.)

While being sued for a debt hurts your credit, making a late payment or having a debt turned over to collections can also cause major damage. Being 30 days late isn't usually reported, but being reported late even once can do a lot of damage -- 100 points or more if you have excellent credit. And that's not as bad as being turned over to collections. A judgment (which is what happens when a creditor takes you to court and a judge orders you to pay) against you is even worse.

Unfortunately, Monique's late payment may already be on her credit report, but it is possible Monique's credit won't suffer further if she can resolve it before it goes to court and a judgment is entered. A judgment is considered very negative. The good news is she may be able to avoid that, because she has already agreed to repay the debt.