Editorial Policy

Late library fine? Expect collections

Allie Johnson

June 25, 2014

Last month, I checked a huge stack of magazines out of our library for some fun summer reading. I was late returning them (oops), but figured I’d pay my fine next time I stopped into the library.

Last week, though, I got an unpleasant surprise: a letter from a collection agency called Unique National Collections, which specializes in collecting money for libraries. I owed $52.

Fretting about the damage the collection could do to my credit, I spoke to a Unique employee, who told me I had 125 days to pay up before the collection would be reported to the three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. The representative also told me it’s common for libraries to send accounts to Unique right away. This means the first notice a consumer gets about a fine could be from the collection agency.

I did a little research and found that Unique calls its process of collecting fines the Gentle Nudge. The Gentle Nudge consists of a “120-day series of letters, calls, skip tracing and credit reporting.” The process “effectively and courteously prompt(s) patrons to return materials to the library and resolve overdue fines/fees” — and does so without alienating patrons, according to Unique’s website.

To me, getting a letter from a collection agency before I even knew what I owed felt like anything but a “gentle nudge.” I work hard to maintain a high credit score, and it seemed aggressive for the library to send my account to collections without even sending me a courtesy email first.

But late library patrons across the country can expect to get similar letters. According to DailyFinance.com, an increasing number of libraries are using collection agencies for fines.

For example, the New York Public Library might send any fine over $50 to collections. The Boulder Public Library, in Colorado, will send an account to collections, and charge a $15 collection fee when checked-out items become more than five weeks overdue. The collection agency will contact the library user several times over 17 weeks before reporting the account to the major credit bureaus. The Montgomery County Public Libraries, in Maryland, give patrons several chances to pay up before resorting to a collection agency. First, the library notifies the customer via email or postal mail when items are 21 days past due. If the patron doesn’t respond in two weeks and the fines total $25 or more (or are 60 days past due), the library will send another letter. If the library user still doesn’t respond, the account is sent to collections.

If that happens to you, it can severely damage your credit — even if it’s for a few dollars. A collection is a collection, whether it’s for a library book or an unpaid credit card bill, according to personal finance site Learnvest. And as MSN Money points out, even a small amount sent to collections can have a big impact on your credit score. MSN Money mentions one consumer who had an overlooked $5 bill sent to collections, causing her score to plummet by 96 points, from 785 to 689. And collections typically remain on your credit report for seven years.

Want to avoid having your credit marred by a library fine? Every library’s policy is different, so check with your library.

Personal finance blogger Carson Brackney of Personal Finance Analyst, who had a forgotten $37 library fine turned over to collections, says if you’re going to use a library to save money on books, be vigilant about returns so your frugal habit doesn’t do you more harm than good. If you have trouble remembering to return items, consider Library Elf, a free reminder service to avoid fines altogether.

If your account does get sent to collections, pay right away. Act fast and you might be able to keep that collection from being reported to the credit bureaus. I sent a check immediately to avoid wrecking my credit.