What to Do When Debt Collectors Call — Even If You Don’t Owe Money

surprised consumer
Photo by Dean Drobot / Shutterstock.com

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.”

Both messages are examples of sneaky, illegal scare tactics that unsavory debt collectors may use in their odious attempts to squeeze cash from you — even if you don’t owe anyone any money.

You can fight back, though. You might even get a lawyer to fight for you for free.

Debt collection businesses must abide by federal laws designed to protect consumers. Federal courts have banned dozens of firms from participating in the debt collection business due to abuse allegations.

Here’s what to watch for and how to stop harassment by debt collectors.

Know your rights

A federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act details practices that are off-limits for debt collectors. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they include:

  • Lying about the amount you owe.
  • Using foul language.
  • Making threats of violence or harm.
  • Calling repeatedly to annoy you.
  • Calling you at work — if they’ve been told your employer doesn’t allow you to get such calls in the workplace.
  • Falsely claiming to be a lawyer or someone who works for a government agency.
  • Falsely claiming you will be arrested.

Additionally, debt collectors must send you what’s known as a “validation notice” in writing within five days of first contacting you. It must include:

  • The amount of money you owe.
  • The name of the creditor to whom you owe the money.
  • How you should proceed if you don’t think you owe the money.

What you do upon receipt of this notice affects what debt collectors can do going forward. The FTC explains:

“You can send a debt collector a letter saying you don’t owe any or all of the money, or asking for verification of the debt. If you send the letter within 30 days of getting the validation notice, the collector has to send you written verification of the debt, like a copy of a bill for the amount you owe, before it can start trying to collect the debt again. You also can get a collector to stop contacting you, at any time, by sending a letter by mail asking for contact to stop.”

If a debt collector takes any of the illegal actions listed above or fails to do what is required by law, report the abuse.

The FTC advises that you report it to the FTC as well as the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and your state attorney general’s office.

You can contact and file complaints with federal agencies online. To find out how to contact your state attorney general, visit the National Association of Attorneys General’s website.

How to stop debt collection harassment

Attorney Craig Kimmel of Kimmel & Silverman tells Money Talks News that if you are contacted by a debt collector, you should tell them you want everything in writing. Do not provide any personal information over the phone.

To keep collectors at bay, you can also tell them you don’t want to be contacted by phone and then hang up. Additionally, write a letter, or have a lawyer write a letter for you, saying that you don’t want to be contacted.

Documentation is key to fighting abuse, especially if you decide you want a lawyer to help you fight abuse.

So, if you send a letter, for example, keep a copy for yourself and get a return receipt to prove the collector got the letter. If the company is abusive on the phone, log the time of every call, the person you spoke to, and what he or she said.

You can sue a debt collector for damages — such as lost wages or medical bills — within one year of when the debt collector violated the law.

Some consumer attorneys also represent abuse victims for free.

“Most of us represent people free of charge because we know we can get paid if we go after the debt collector successfully,” Kimmel says.

Another option if a collector crosses the line: Consult the debt collector harassment page of our Solutions Center. Money Talks News has partnered with Debt.com to match you with a reputable expert who can help you.

To learn more about your options when it comes to debt collection, check out “Ask Stacy — Is There a Statute of Limitations on Debt?

Have you been a victim of debt collection abuse? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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