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Alright, here's my story, props to anyone who makes it all the way through this post:

-Right after I got out of college I had A+ credit. Up until that point I had been great at keeping a balance on my credit card and then paying it off every month for about 4 years. Therefore, the credit card companies were willing to give me stupid amounts of credit.

-After I graduated, I fell on very hard times personally and professionally. I maxed out absolutely everything and had no way to pay it off. I had to get some sort of extension to my student loan, but managed to keep that out of collections. Everything else went to collections. This happened in late 2002.

-Since then, the collections people actually have left me along for a reasonable amount of time, and I've left them alone too. Was this a good strategy? Maybe not. Personally responsible? Definitely not, but I was in the process of getting my life back and really didn't want to worry about my dark financial past.

-After my credit bottomed out completely, I managed to get some secured lines of credit, pay them off, keep contracts, pay everything on time. In fact, my credit is actually about average now. I just got a new car and was approved through the primary lender, not one of those high-risk joints. Now, before you say anything, it's a cheap new car... nothing fancy, well within my means.

-So, here I am, 5 years later, now married and with a great job, a very manageable level of (current) debt (just a student loan and a car and a credit card I pay off every month), and actually starting to put some money away. Here is my problem:

-A collection agency called me today about an old credit card debt. Now, could I write a single check and have it paid? Sure... without blinking. But, I have no idea what sort of avalanche this may cause with other creditors. At what point is this stuff just written off? Am I obligated to these things for an infinite amount of time? I know it comes off of my credit report eventually (2009), but do I really need to have this fear in the back of my mind until I track down every missed utility bill, every $20 bad check for groceries, and every credit card debt? Does this ever go away, and is it wise for me to even talk with these people?

Please help, I have no idea what to do here. It's not that I'm opposed to paying the money I borrowed, but I don't want to bring a storm down on myself if it's close to just being written off (to be honest I thought it already was). Plus, if I do pay, what is the best way? Can I accept a settlement amount without it reflecting negatively on my credit report? Will this extend the amount of time that these things remain on my credit report?

I'm pulling my hair out (which is rare for me) because I've been doing good, and I really don't want to get tricked into screwing it up now.

Thank you in advance.

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