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Negotiate With Credit Card Companies, But Do So Carefully

Earlier, Megan posted a piece urging people to negotiate credit card debt if they find themselves in a deep financial bind. I agree with that advice, but I wanted to expand on it a bit. I have a few more kernels of advice to offer when dealing with credit card companies based on my own experience, and also a warning.

After I graduated college, I had a run-in with a credit card company that ended up (much to my surprise and dismay) as a settlement. The entire story is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that I will never own an American Express card again, no matter how many offers they send me now each month. But I learned some important lessons for dealing with credit card companies through that awful episode.

First, always get names of who you're speaking with -- first and last. I made the mistake of having a customer service representative tell me that my account was being wiped clean due to a mistake he took responsibility for. Yet, I received additional bills for late fees on that supposedly empty balance in the weeks that followed, and eventually calls from collectors. Naturally, Amex had no record of the conversation I had with one of their representatives. Unfortunately, I didn't have the name of the rep either, so I couldn't fight them when they demanded the fees incurred in the time that elapsed.

Second, get a letter declaring your zero balance after settling. Even if you've settled, you can still expect calls from third-party collection agencies. Your account was probably sold months earlier, and credit card companies don't much care if the collection agencies continue to call you. Without something in writing that you can present to those collectors, they'll keep bothering you.

Third, keep detailed notes of all your dealings with credit card company reps. Note not only names of who you've spoken to, but also the times, dates and what was discussed. All of this will strengthen your credibility and possibly help if the company takes you to court.

Finally, don't expect your credit score to be unaffected by a settlement. As a post I wrote about a week ago explained, a settlement can knock as much as 125 points off your credit score. That's certainly not worse than declaring bankruptcy -- which can result in much as a 240 point hit -- but a settlement will still hurt a lot. As always, the only way to really ensure your credit score is minimally harmed is to actually pay off the balance. If that's just not possible, then by all means, negotiate.