Owning more than you can pay is bad enough. Being badgered, hounded and abused by a debt collector can make your life a living hell.
But if you ever find yourself harassed with dozens of phone calls daily, here’s something you should know. You don’t deserve to be treated like a doormat nor should you tolerate it. More important, if your legal rights are being violated, you might qualify for free legal help to make it stop.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act stipulates what third-party debt collectors can and can’t do when trying to collect. In 2009, the FTC received almost 120,000 complaints about third-party debt collectors: an increase of nearly 50% from 2008. The two most common complaints were phone harassment (34.7%) and obscene, profane or abusive language (13.5%), both violations of the law. And the FTC is taking violations seriously. For example, just yesterday they issued this press release about a million dollar fine levied against one national collection agency.
What should you do if you’re being bullied? First, meet someone who took the bull by the horns: Michelle Vizzini. This Philadelphia woman woke up one morning to find her bank account frozen at the hands of a debt collector for a 13 year old debt she says she doesn’t owe. Watch the short video below, then meet me on the other side for more.
So Michelle found help by following the advice of attorney Craig Kimmel. To recap his advice for dealing with a debt collector:
- Validate the debt. You have 30-days after being contacted by a debt collector to write a letter requesting verification of the debt. Not doing so right away allows the collector to place negative information on your credit report. Download a sample debt verification letter.
- Write a cease and desist letter. You can tell the collector not to call or write you; to leave you completely alone. Download a sample cease and desist letter.
- Talk to a consumer lawyer. Become predator instead of prey. Ask for free legal help and let the attorney charge the collector for fees.
How to get free help
According to attorney Kimmel, if a debt collector violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, they’re liable for damages which could include money and payment of legal fees. So if that debt collector is breaking the rules, they’ll ultimately be paying for your lawyer. And you don’t have to pay a dime up front to find out. You get a free consultation with the lawyer, they ask you what’s happening, and based on your responses he or she may agree to represent you without charge. You’ve lost nothing by talking to them.
Also, keep in mind that this free legal representation has nothing to do with whether or not you owe money, it’s all about whether someone is breaking the law trying to collect it.
The FTC’s list of practices off-limits to debt collectors: below is the list of law violations taken directly from the FTC website.
Harassment. Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact. For example, they may not:
- use threats of violence or harm;
- publish a list of names of people who refuse to pay their debts (but they can give this information to the credit reporting companies);
- use obscene or profane language; or
- repeatedly use the phone to annoy someone.
False statements. Debt collectors may not lie when they are trying to collect a debt. For example, they may not:
- falsely claim that they are attorneys or government representatives;
- falsely claim that you have committed a crime;
- falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit reporting company;
- misrepresent the amount you owe;
- indicate that papers they send you are legal forms if they aren’t; or
- indicate that papers they send to you aren’t legal forms if they are.
Debt collectors also are prohibited from saying that:
- you will be arrested if you don’t pay your debt;
- they’ll seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages unless they are permitted by law to take the action and intend to do so; or
- legal action will be taken against you, if doing so would be illegal or if they don’t intend to take the action.
Debt collectors may not:
- give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit reporting company;
- send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency if it isn’t; or
- use a false company name.
Unfair practices. Debt collectors may not engage in unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. For example, they may not:
- try to collect any interest, fee, or other charge on top of the amount you owe unless the contract that created your debt – or your state law – allows the charge;
- deposit a post-dated check early;
- take or threaten to take your property unless it can be done legally; or
- contact you by postcard.
If you have more questions about dealing with debt collectors, check out this video from the FTC
Avoiding problems by avoiding debt collectors
Although you have rights under the law and potentially free help to enforce them, being in the sights of a debt collector isn’t a fun experience. If at all possible, avoid it. Here are some tips that might help:
- Avoid collectors by dealing directly with the creditor. Try to work out a manageable payment plan.
- Find a reputable credit counseling agency. They will help you come up with a budget and make payments. Check out this story we did on credit counseling.
- Keep copies and records of all your debts. If a question ever arises, you’ll be ready.
- Keep funds that legally cannot be used for debt payments, like Social Security or disability checks, in their own bank account. If a court order freezes your cash, this separate account should still be available.
- Whenever you’re in a conflict over a debt (or anything else that concerns the legal world) record conversations (if it’s legal where you live) and take notes: names, dates, times, subjects, what was discussed. This information could prove vital in any dispute.
- Get everything in writing, especially any agreements you make. This will help avoid misunderstandings over how much you’re supposed to pay and for how long.
- When corresponding, use Certified Mail.
Bottom line? As I said in the news story above, I’m the last one to suggest you shouldn’t pay your bills. You should. And if you can’t, you should get help, hopefully before debt collectors start harassing you. But no matter what your situation, owing money doesn’t require payment with your dignity.
And for those of you who will respond to this story with some variation of “dead-beats-get-what-they-deserve,” here’s another story you can check out from a few years ago: In this one, a guy who lost his business was told by a debt collector, “You’re not a man, how can you take care of your family”. Watch the 90-second story here.