Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tolling Debt and the Statute of Limitations

Around the world, thousands upon thousands of U.S. citizens sit around waiting on pins and needles for the statute of limitations to expire on their debts. When the statute of limitations expires, a collection agency loses the right to sue you (be careful, some do anyway) and use a judgment to take such drastic action as garnishing your paycheck, putting liens on your property and seizing your bank accounts. Unfortunately, by leaving your home state or the country, you're giving debt collectors the right to "toll" your debt. This disrupts the statute of limitations – giving the collection agency much longer to file a lawsuit against you.

How Collection Agency Tolling Works

Tolling protects collection agencies from losing their rights to sue a debtor simply because the debtor is unavailable. Lets look at the following example:

Bobby owes $2000 to Collection Agency X. The statute of limitations for open accounts in his state is four years. It's been two years since Bobby defaulted on his payments. Bobby is deathly afraid of being sued by Collection Agency X. Bobby knows that it will be nearly impossible (and almost certainly too much trouble) for Collection Agency X to sue him if he is in another country. Because he has family in Russia, Bobby decides to wait out the remaining two years on his debt's statute of limitations there rather than at home, where he feels like a sitting duck. 

Bobby's situation can have one of three potential outcomes after he returns home: 

1. Collection Agency X never sues Bobby.

2. Collection Agency X sues Bobby. Bobby responds to the court summons using an expired statute of limitations as his defense. Because Collection Agency X was not aware that Bobby ever left the country, it is forced to drop its lawsuit. 

3. Collection Agency X is aware that Bobby left the country for a period of two years. It files suit against Bobby. Bobby responds by claiming an expired statute of limitations as his defense. Collection Agency X does not drop its lawsuit. Instead, it submits documentation to the court demonstrating that Bobby left the country for two years. Because collection accounts are "tolled" when an individual leaves the U.S., there are still two years left on the debt's statute of limitations. 

You can't always run and hide from collectors.
In the third scenario, leaving the country to wait out the statute of limitations didn't do Bobby a lick of good. The debt was tolled and when Bobby came back to the states, he was right back where he started with two years left on his debt's statute of limitations. I know that seems brutally unfair, but as hard as it is to get our heads that far up our butts, lets look at the collection agency's point of view. The collector is out to collect a debt. Collecting debts is how the company makes a profit and remains in business. Bobby was trying to cheat the system (not that debt collectors don't try to cheat the system too, just in different ways).

You could argue that leaving the country to escape debt collectors isn't technically "cheating" since the collection agency could go through the time and effort of pursuing the debt internationally if it really wanted to, but the collection agency would argue that the same rules should apply to everyone and debtors shouldn't be rewarded for running away from their debts. Thus, the company tolls your debt.

Not All Accounts Get "Tolled" When the Debtor Leaves the Country

Now, let me say straight up that I am not giving anyone instructions on how to hide from their creditors. That being said, a creditor can only use tolling as a defense to an out-of-statute lawsuit if the creditor knows that you left the country.

One of the primary ways creditors find out that you are living abroad is by your forwarding address. Keep in mind that these companies want to track you down, and if you've given your friends, family, current creditors and the post office your new international address, its a fair bet that the collection agency will have it before long. Remember, debt collectors can call your family members in an effort to locate you. Although collection agents aren't supposed to lie to your loved ones, it happens all the time and your brother/sister/cousin might be more than happy to give your long-lost "friend" your new contact information.

Your debt may still be there when you return.
Another way debt collectors find out that you're no longer in the U.S. is by pulling your credit report. Because debt collectors define themselves as legitimate business associates, they have the right to pull and review your credit report any time they like without obtaining your permission first. If your current creditors have your new address, they will update your file and the updated address will appear on your credit report. As soon as the collection agency discovers that you are no longer in the U.S., its a fair bet that it will toll your debt.

Running Away From Debt

Lots of consumers who are really and truly desperate opt for a new life abroad rather than staying in America and facing their creditors. Keep in mind, however, that because of a collection agency's right to toll your debt, even leaving the country isn't a guarantee that one day you'll be able to return home to a peaceful, debt-free existence. Thus, you should think long and hard before packing your bags and catching the next plane to Timbuktu. Your debts may not follow you, but a tolled debt never truly dies.

Related Posts:

How Debt Collectors Find You

Lawsuit Statute of Limitations

How to Respond to a Bill Collector's Lawsuit

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting article. I am interested in learning more about this, especially collection agencies in utah. Does anybody have any more information for me?