Your phone rings late at night.
The caller tells you he has a warrant for your daughter’s arrest over an unpaid debt he’s trying to collect.
Or maybe a text lights up your cellphone:
“YOUR PAYMENT DECLINED WITH [YOUR CREDIT CARD NUMBER] . . . CALL 888-555-1234 IMMEDIATELY.
Does that look like a fraud alert from your credit card company?
Both messages are just sneaky, illegal scare tactics that unsavory debt collectors use in their odious attempts to squeeze cash from you — even if you don’t owe anyone any money.
You can fight back. You might even get a free lawyer to fight for you. You can also check out our Collector Harassment page in our Solutions Center.
Legitimate debt collection businesses have easy-to-follow rules, says the Federal Trade Commission. But so many try to take unfair advantage of consumers that 70 federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies teamed up with the FTC last year to launch Operation Collection Protection to end deceptive and abusive debt-collection schemes. The operation has since taken about 120 legal actions against collectors who allegedly make harassing phone calls, false threats of lawsuits and arrests, attempts to collect phony debts or other egregious acts.
Also, the FTC has won court bans against more than 100 firms who can no longer participate in the debt collection business due to abuse allegations. The list and case files are here.
ACA International, the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, says it welcomes the enforcement effort but claims the vast majority of debt collectors act treat consumers with respect and act within the law.
“There is a genuine difference between an honest, legitimate business struggling to comply with very complex and often unclear laws and those who flout the law and have absolutely no intent to comply,” says Patrick J. Morris, the trade industry association’s CEO.
Here’s what to watch for and how to stop harassment by debt collectors.
Know your rights
Your rights are spelled out in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which also lists practices that are off-limits for debt collectors. You should report these abusive tactics, say the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies:
- Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you have agreed to accept early or late calls.
- Lying about the amount you owe.
- Using foul language.
- Making threats.
- Calling repeatedly to annoy you.
- Calling you at work after you’ve told them verbally or in writing that your employer doesn’t allow you to get such calls in the workplace.
- Publishing a list of individuals with outstanding debts.
- Posting your debt on your social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, where it can instantly be viewed by others.
- Falsely claiming to be a lawyer, process-server or someone who works for a government agency.
- Discussing your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse and your attorney.
- Claiming you have committed a crime or will be arrested.
- Calling your boss or friends to get information about you. (Exception: They can ask for contact information; they cannot say you owe money.)
If a debt collector does any of the above, let them know you are aware of your rights and will file a complaint.
When you file your complaint, send all key details of the interaction to the attorney general’s office in your state, the Federal Trade Commission or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Include:
- The collector’s name
- The date of contact
- Specific statements made
How to stop those calls
These tips should help keep the debt collectors at bay:
- Tell the collector you want everything in writing and don’t give up personal information over the phone. No law mandates the disclosure of identifying information, such as your Social Security number or your date of birth, to debt collectors.
- Tell the debt collector you no longer want to be contacted by phone and then hang up.
- Write a letter, or have a lawyer write a letter for you, and say you don’t wish to be contacted by phone.
- Document the abuse, especially to get yourself a free lawyer to sue a debt collector for abusive behavior. You could be awarded damages, plus attorney’s fees, the FTC says.
Most consumer attorneys will represent people free of charge “because we know we can get paid if we can go after the debt collector successfully,” says Craig Kimmel, an attorney at Kimmel & Silverman.
Lawyers need good documentation. If you send a “do not call” letter, send it with a return receipt so you can prove the collector got it. If the company is being abusive on the phone, keep a log to record the time of every call, the person you spoke to, and what he or she said.
If you’re dealing with a collector who is crossing the line, Money Talks News has partnered with Debt.com to match you with someone who can help. See our Collector Harassment service page.
If you do owe a debt that has gone to collections, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan. If you’re taken to court, you could end up in jail if you ignore the legal proceedings. If a creditor obtains a court judgment against you, it can garnish wages, attach bank accounts and file liens against your real estate.