As a person with a common last name, I can relate to this viewer’s question. But no matter how common your name, it pays to know how to deal with collection agencies…
My husband and I have common names – Steve and Kathy Miller. We continually get calls from collection agencies who I think are just calling every S or K Miller they can, trying to find the person they actually want. We have no debt but our mortgage, and we pay credit card balances in full. We typically ignore the calls since we have caller ID, but should I be concerned that somehow we might receive some type of comment on our credit report if they are able to get our unpublished phone number?
About 8 years ago, we were getting calls regarding a car “Steve Miller” had rented in Arizona and owed money on. So when I told the caller we had not been there for five years, and asked if he had the Social Security number of the individual (without revealing ours), that stopped those calls. Oh, short sweet success.
Years later, however, we continue to get other calls. We typically let the calls go to voice mail, and a recorded message is left telling us to call back on a certain phone number or go to a website to set up “our payment.”
This time, we have had around three months of daily robo calls. I finally picked up and talked with a male caller. Well, he’s looking for a “Steven Paul Miller,” so I told him there was not a person by that name in our house and to remove us from their possible candidate’s list. He said he would – but he didn’t. So the calls are continuing.
Stacy, what, if anything, will stop or prevent these robo calls? And how can a person protect themselves from this harassment? I assume this happens to the Smiths, Andersons, and all the rest with common names.
harassed with good credit
If you’ve been following my recent “Ask Stacy” columns, you know that, just for fun, I’ve been including music in them. I often struggle finding a song that matches the topic, but this time it’s a no-brainer. Here’s Steve Miller with the 1971 song “The Gangster Is Back”…
I doubt Steve was inspired by collection agencies when he sang that one, but since collection agencies often act like gangsters, I found it fitting. Now, on to to Kathy’s problem.
Putting the brakes on collections
In an article called Abused by a Debt Collector? Get a Free Lawyer, we explained your rights when it comes to collections. Here’s information from that story…
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act stipulates what third-party debt collectors can and can’t do when trying to collect. In 2011, the FTC received more than 180,000 complaints about third-party debt collectors. The two most common complaints were phone harassment (what’s happening to Kathy) and obscene, profane, or abusive language – both violations of the law. The FTC takes violations seriously. For example, check out this press release about a $1 million fine levied against a national collection agency.
So what should you do if a collection agency calls you to collect a debt? Whether it’s legitimate or not, here’s the process for dealing with uncooperative debt collectors:
- Validate the debt. When you’re contacted by a debt collector, step one is to get their agency name and address and write a letter requesting verification of the debt. Do this immediately to prevent them from placing negative information on your credit report. You can find a simple example of a validation letter at this page of about.com. Send any correspondence certified, return receipt. And while you’re sending letters…
- Send a cease-and-desist letter. Tell the collector not to call or write you again. Once you’ve done that, further contact is a violation of federal law. Here’s a sample of that letter. If that doesn’t work…
- Talk to a consumer lawyer. Become predator instead of prey. Ask for free legal help, and if the debt collector is violating the law, you won’t pay the bill – because the attorney will collect legal fees from the debt collector.
If debt collectors violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, they’re liable for damages that could include money as well as payment of legal fees. You don’t have to pay a dime up front to find out. Get a free consultation with the lawyer, 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 debt-collection violations
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
- repeatedly use the phone to annoy someone (exactly what’s happening to Kathy)
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
- indicate that papers they send you aren’t legal forms if they are
Debt collectors are also prohibited from saying that:
- you’ll 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
- 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
- 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
- contact you by postcard
If you have more questions about dealing with debt collectors, check out this video from the FTC.
Bottom line? It’s easy to feel helpless when debt collectors are harassing you and it’s easy to become angry when they’re harassing you about a debt that isn’t yours. But don’t be intimidated.
Instead of getting mad, get even. Follow the advice above. Tell them in writing to provide proof you owe money and/or to stop contacting you. If they fail to do either, contact an attorney who will speak a language they fully understand: money.
To find a consumer lawyer in your area, go to this page of the National Association of Consumer Advocates website.
Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.