‘Charged Off as Bad Debt’: What Does It Mean?


A charge-off is one of the most damaging items you can have on your credit report. However, the term “charge off” can be confusing. Many people don’t understand what it is, or why it hurts their credit scores.

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It’s imperative to realize that a charged-off debt does not release you from your financial obligations.

While collection calls from the original creditor will likely stop, and you won’t receive notices in the mail anymore, this is merely a temporary relief.

Understanding how a charge-off works is important if you want to repair your credit and get back on your feet. Here are the facts about accounts that have been charged-off as bad debt that will help you make the right decision when it comes to improving your credit score.

What is a charge-off?

A charge-off occurs when a creditor deems a debt to be “uncollectible” to write it off on their profit-and-loss statement.

Each creditor may handle a charged-off account in different ways. Some have an internal collection department, while others sell old debts or contract third parties to collect for them.

No matter which option a company chooses, a charge-off can be a real headache. Not only does it damage your credit history, it also often results in new collection activity.

How soon can an account be charged-off as bad debt?

An account is usually charged-off as bad debt after only 90 days of being past-due. However, some creditors wait up to six months of missed payments.

Regardless of when the charge-off occurs, getting it resolved can be difficult if the creditor sells your debts to a third-party collection agency.

Does a charged-off account hurt your credit score?

A charge-off can stay on your credit report for up to seven years. They are much more damaging to your credit history than a 30-day or 60-day late notation.

When a charge off appears on your credit report, it serves as a red flag to potential lenders. Even if most of your accounts are up-to-date and paid on time, a single charged-off debt can prevent you from getting credit in the future.

A charge off isn’t as a bankruptcy or a foreclosure. However, most creditors won’t lend to someone who has multiple charge-offs on their credit report. Additionally, nearly all mortgage lenders require all of them to be cleared before issuing a home loan. Plus, you may even have trouble qualifying for credit cards and store cards.

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A charge-off can lead to big drops in your credit score—as much as 50 to 100 points. This is particularly true if you’ve never had credit problems in the past. Once your account is in charge-off status, paying it will only help your credit slightly. A paid charge-off is certainly better than one that is unpaid. However, in terms of your credit score, there is usually little difference.

You may be able to negotiate a debt settlement to get a charge off removed in return for full payment. However, these types of requests are not always honored by the creditors. If you do negotiate a deal, have the creditor or debt collection agency put it in writing before making any payments.

Do you still have to pay a charge-off?

Even if your debt is now charged-off, you are still liable for the unpaid debt. If the statute of limitations has not expired on collecting the debt, you may even be sued for what you owe.

Never assume that you don’t have to pay an account that has been charged-off as bad debt. Always verify the facts. Sometimes calls and letters from the original creditor will stop when a charge-off occurs. So, many people think that they are in the clear.

But, in reality, your charged-off account has been turned over to an in-house or third-party collection agency, who then resumes collection efforts.

So, most likely, your credit report will have both the charged-off account and a collection account placed by the collection agency. It is your responsibility to address these accounts to stop collection attempts and clear up your credit.

Why are there multiple charge-offs listed for one account?

It’s possible to have several charged-off accounts listed on your credit report for the same account. The reason is that debt collection agencies often sell bad debt to a debt buyer. This leaves a trail of negative accounts on your credit report in their wake.

Cleaning up these multiple negative listings can be a real hassle. In addition, your credit score will drop for each new charge-off account listed on your report. If you have an account that’s been charged off, it’s wise to look at your credit report to see how it’s listed. Then, do what you can to get multiple entries removed.

Can paying old charged-off debt be damaging?

It’s not uncommon to get a lot of collection activity around charge-offs that are many years old. This can happen for two reasons:

  1. The debt is close to being “time-barred” (meaning the debt collector won’t be able to sue you to collect anymore). Debt collectors use high-pressure tactics to attempt to get debt payments or a promise to pay, which restarts the clock on how long they have to collect. If you fall for this trap, you may find yourself facing a judgment or lien.
  2. The debt is close to the reporting limit (meaning that the charge-off won’t show up on your credit report anymore). Even if the charge-off is time-barred, if it’s on your credit report it is still a negative mark. Debt collectors attempt to collect on accounts that are about to fall off your credit report because they know that they will have zero leverage once the debt is past the statute of limitations.

Both of these situations can put you in a dangerous financial position if you pay or promise to pay on the debt. Among other things, you open yourself up to lawsuits. In addition, some unscrupulous creditors may try to list the account as being brand new if they can get even a token payment from you.

You are at risk of legal issues and further drops in your credit score. This is because more recent negative information weighs heavily on your credit score.

Furthermore, a third-party debt collector may attempt to collect on debts that aren’t even listed on your credit report.

These debts may be ten years old or more. However, they are hoping that you will pay up without checking your credit reports first. Again, paying anything on these types of charge-offs puts you at risk for being sued to collect and might not even help your credit.

Is it possible to remove a charge-off from your credit report?

It’s important to recognize the fact that ANY error on your credit report can be removed.

So, if a creditor has sloppy paperwork and filled your credit report with mistakes, you can get each charged-off account deleted.

This refers to any mistakes, including mistakes in the amount that you are supposed to owe. Additionally, any errors with your account itself and even simple computer errors can lead to removal if the company doesn’t have records to correct them.

For charged-off accounts that are several years old, your account may not even be in their system anymore. To successfully dispute a charge-off, you should know your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). It’s essential for you to understand how these laws protect you from errors on your credit report.

When initiating a dispute, you’ll need to keep track of all correspondence between you, the creditor, and the credit bureau.

If you want to be sure that a charged-off debt is removed, you must prepare your requests carefully. If the credit bureaus think your request is “frivolous” they will ignore it, even if you have a valid error to remove.

For many people, all the work involved in getting a charge-off removed is just too much hassle to do alone. No one wants to have to speak to a debt collector on the phone. Furthermore, no one wants to have to keep track of multiple letters sent back and forth to creditors and the three major credit bureaus.

How can you get help to dispute a charge-off?

Often, the best solution is to speak with a credit repair specialist that is familiar with the law. They can help you challenge charge-offs, late and delinquent payments, and other negative items from your credit reports.

They can also help you manage the process so that the credit reporting agencies and your creditors actually listen to you instead of dismissing you.

Even if you do decide to do it all on your own, take the time to speak with a professional and be sure that you have accurate information. The sooner you take care of the charge-off, the sooner you get to have financial freedom and peace of mind.

How can you prevent a charge-off?

Once you understand how they affect your credit, you can take steps to avoid having them listed in the first place. Here are three quick tips to avoid a charge-off on your credit file:

  1. Keep all accounts as current as possible. If you can’t pay up in full each month, try to come to an arrangement with the creditor. The goal here is to never be more than 60 days past due on any debt. That way, you are assured of avoiding a charge-off.
  2. Pay attention to any “Final Notice” bills that you receive. Go to the original creditor and attempt to work something out before the bad debt is sold to a collection agency. You’ll find that most creditors are willing to work with you because they get more money if they don’t hire out an agency.
  3. Get professional help. If you are having problems with your credit, a credit repair specialist may be able to help you improve your credit scores. Disputing inaccurate information (such as debts listed as past-due when they’ve been paid) can help to keep your account from going so far into arrears that the debt is charged-off.

No matter what you decide to do to get rid of or prevent charge-offs, there is no better time to act than right now. They don’t have to ruin your financial future if you are smart and take the time to be proactive about repairing your credit.

Ready to Raise Your Credit Score?

Learn how credit repair professionals can assist you in disputing inaccuracies on your credit report.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a personal finance writer who strives to equip readers with the knowledge to achieve their financial objectives. She has over a decade of experience and a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.