How To Protect Yourself Against Aggressive Debt Collectors

Millions of Americans are in debt, so it stands to reason that there are over 6,500 collection agencies in the U.S.. Most of these agencies operate under the law but a growing number of them do not. According to statistics from the Better Business Bureau, complaints filed against debt collectors rose 27% in 2007. Even if you legitimately owe the debt, you should know there are laws that protect you against harassment and the unfair practices often employed by these rogue debt collectors. CNN Money discusses the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and laws which protect the consumer. Details, inside…

Third-party debt collectors are regulated by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) which is overseen by the FTC. Here are few practices which are prohibited under the law:

Harassment
Debt collectors cannot make threats of violence against consumers or publish lists of those who don’t pay their debt. They may contact you in person, by mail, or by fax but can only call you between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. unless you have agreed to alternate hours. They are also not allowed to use obscene language or call repeatedly (i.e. several times a day).

False statements
Debt collectors cannot misrepresent themselves. They cannot not falsely imply that they are attorneys, government agencies or that they work for a credit bureau. They cannot say that papers being sent you are legal forms if they are not, or say that they are not legal forms if they are.

Unfair practices
Debt collectors may not collect an amount greater than your debt, unless your state law permits it. They cannot use deception to make you accept collect calls or pay for telegrams. They also cannot threaten to take your property or contact you by postcard.

Linda Sherry of Consumer Action recommends that if a debt collector contacts you, the first thing you should do is ask for proof of the debt which should consist of a paper document with your signature stating that you applied for the debt. Also, be aware that some debts have a statute of limitations which could be from 3 to 15 years. Check your state’s laws to see if your debt is still collectible because once you pay a portion of the debt the clock resets again.

You can stop a debt collector from contacting you if you submit a written request to them. Once they receive the letter, they cannot contact you again except to tell you there will be no more contact. Additionally, if you have an attorney presiding over your debt, they must contact the attorney instead of you.

Just because you are in debt, doesn’t mean that debt collectors have the right to harass you or operate outside of the law. If you feel that a debt collector has violated the law, you can file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General office and the Federal Trade Commission.


Debt collectors on the rampage
[CNN]

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
[FCC]
(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. sunny143 says:

    Remember, the rules in this article apply specifically to third party collectors. If the company where the debt originated is collecting, other rules apply. In most states, if the collector is the original creditor then the rules are more relaxed.

  2. thesuperpet says:

    so here’s a question for you… WHO can they call? I am an adult, but a debt collector called my mother and asked if she would pay my bill. Is that legal?

  3. MacQix says:

    “Also, be aware that some debts have a statute of limitations which could be from 3 to 15 years.”

    How do I find this information? I looked at my state bar associations website and there was nothing listed?

    How about a list for the various states?

  4. nightshade74 says:

    Here is a list of SOL for the various types of debts
    and states:

    [www.creditinfocenter.com]

    As far as contacting your Mom it depends… Third
    party debt collectors (not the original creditor) shouldnt
    be doing this. They can call relatives to try and locate
    you but shouldnt disclose the debt…. AFAIK…
    Now the original creditor … that’s a diffrent
    story….

  5. zigziggityzoo says:

    @MacQix:

    A list of the statute of limitations for collecting debt, arranged by state:
    [www.cardreport.com]

  6. zigziggityzoo says:

    @zigziggityzoo: I sent that link in with this story to Tips@consumerist, but apparently it didn’t make the cut.

  7. MitchV says:

    >>so here’s a question for you… WHO can they call? I am an adult, but a debt collector called my mother and asked if she would pay my bill. Is that legal?

    No. Furthermore, they are legally required to call you between certain hours (your time, not theirs) and you can also tell them to never call you at work and they must abide (that is harassment).

    The legal requirements are there, but the collection industry does not abide by the law.

    Whether it is problems with collections or you are trying to get out of debt, I highly recommend Dave Ramsey. He’s got a radio show, you can listen to shows for free from his website. He also has several books you can buy or check out from the library. He covers these things in detail and provides solid advice.

    http://www.daveramsey.com

  8. floofy3223 says:

    @thesuperpet: No, that is not legal. They cannot discuss your debt with anyone but you.

    Just a note–the FDCPA only applies to 3rd party collection agencies. If the collector works for the original creditor, the FDCPA does not apply. And if it’s a student loan collector, they can pretty much do whatever they want.

  9. bohemian says:

    The amount of fraud debt in the last couple of years is a bit concerning. There are constantly people getting debt letters from agencies for places they never did business with or debts they don’t owe. The only recourse you have is to dispute it. That really isn’t enough protection from these scammers.

  10. bohemian says:

    @floofy3223: Actually your incorrect about student loan debt. If they are a 3rd party service trying to collect the debt they are still bound by FDCPA and there is someone at the Dept. of Ed that you can send complaints to.

  11. PinkBox says:

    @bohemian: I agree. I’ve been disputing a debt on my report for years now that isn’t mine, and I cannot get the credit agencies to remove it since they say it is verified.

    I really don’t know how they can verify something I know 100% that I never had in the first place.

  12. ugh, anyone get repeated calls from this annoying company portfolio recovery associates? i have no debt, yet they call my house several times a day. definitely gonna report those f*ckers. I have a feeling that they are phishing for info. Anyone else who receives a call from them, beware.

  13. hypoxia says:

    I’m suing a debt collector in federal court right now. His company has many pending lawsuits and has actually been kicked out of the state of Texas with a fine over $2 million for malicious business practices, and he hasn’t stopped. Thought he could push around one of the “little people.” He was very unhappy when I pushed back.

  14. duetoprivacy says:

    What about when the debt collectors call literally 20 times a day. EVERYDAY. I have had them call 5 times in one hour! Not saying the debt isn’t mine, I just don’t have the money to pay it right now.

    (college student who didn’t heed the warnings about credit cards)

  15. wishing upon says:

    If you’re a college student with debt owed to the government, do they have third party collection agencies call for the money? Or not?

    Also, isn’t most debt paid in small amounts every month or so? Are collection agencies still obliged to call and hassle their customers if the customers still pay that little bit when they’re supposed to?

  16. barty says:

    @thesuperpet: No, furthermore they are in violation of the law if they are calling/inquiring family members or neighbors about the debt.

    @gnappulicious: Your address or phone number probably belonged to someone they’re trying to collect a debt from. They are a legit collections company, you just need to be firm that whomever they are looking for no longer lives there when they call AND get their mailing address (not a PO Box) to find out where to send a letter asking them to desist calling you.

    @floofy3223: There are provisions of the FDCPA that do apply to the original owner of the debt. The rules are a little different, but they still can’t use threats, have to stop contacting you at your request, etc..

    I had one collection agency that kept calling my number at work that had been assigned to an ex-employee. First couple of times I told them that it was a business and that the person was no longer employed there. After the 3rd time they called after telling them that the person had been terminated, I was ready with a number to the legal department at the company. I just gave that to them and told them to direct any other inquiries about this person there. Needless to say they didn’t call again after that.

    By the way, if you tell the collection agency to go away, most aren’t going to take it nicely if you owe a good amount of money. Don’t be shocked if you get served with a lawsuit soon afterwards. It is always in your best interest to take the call, inform them that you are financially unable to pay at this moment and intend on repaying the debt when able. Put all this into writing too.

  17. You *can* file a complaint with the Atty General or the FTC, but you can also sue them, often at no cost to you. There are consumer-law attorneys who will take these cases for nothing (I know a few, but IANAL), especially if you have evidence. The suits are usually small and over quickly (or settled), and you will typically receive from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (and your attorney will get paid).

    I wish *everybody* sued over these violations; I bet they’d stop happening, then. I’m tired of hearing from nice older people and clueless but hardworking families that these jerks have been threatening to take their homes away if they don’t pay, swearing at their kids when they answer the phone, and all kinds of ridiculousness, all over a stupid debt that’s 2/3 fees by now anyway. *grumble growl*

  18. Roycester says:

    Dave Ramsey – can you even sign on to his website without your wallet?

    Here’s a better idea

    http://www.budhibbs.com

  19. Mysterry says:

    For more information how to deal with these debt collectors is go to: [www.creditinfocenter.com] or [www.creditmagic.org] (great forum).

    If they harass you, threaten you, break the FDCPA then contact the FTC, your attorney general’s office, and take them to small claims court!

    Remember that you’re in the position of haggling with them. So when you settle a debt with them, make sure that you tell them that you want them to delete all negative posts on your credit report.

  20. jswilson64 says:

    @floofy3223: “And if it’s a student loan collector, they can pretty much do whatever they want. “

    If they’re a 3rd party, they can’t. They’re bound to the same collection practices as those that collect for Capital One. Now, the Department of Education, they can pretty much do what they want, especially if they bring their bulldog, the IRS with ‘em.

  21. jswilson64 says:

    @sometimes: Yes.

    Don’t ask me how I know… :-(

  22. Landru says:

    @duetoprivacy: Ask for their name and address. Then tell them to stop calling you. And say you are going to call the police.

  23. I’m glad consumerist runs stories like this. Too many times people don’t know what their rights are. Sad, but some people think it’s LEGAL for a debt collector to call them at 10PM.

  24. @floofy3223: [www.law.cornell.edu]

    Generally any time you receive a letter from a company and it lists that specific paragraph stating something along the lines of “this is an attempt to collect a debt” they are regulated by the FDCPA. While it is true that original creditors are not regulated by the FDCPA, there have been cases where the collections department of an original creditor would fall under FDCPA.

    It was mentioned earlier but the two sites you should be visiting for debt collections are http://www.BudHibbs.com and http://www.creditinfocenter.com . The best request for validation letter is at CIC- [www.creditinfocenter.com]

  25. lalaland13 says:

    @thesuperpet: @MitchV: I have a similar problem, except it’s my mom who took out parent loans for my education, and I got debt people harassing me repeatedly, telling me they had called the police and the police said I needed to be arrested. It almost makes me laugh now, except it’s so hideous. Anyway, I checked repeatedly and I was in no way culpable for the debt since my mom was the only signer, but they kept calling at work, home, etc. I filed a police report for harassment, even though the police said there wasn’t a heckuva lot they could do since I was in another state. Also, the police tried to tell me maybe my mom had forged my name for a loan. She had not, needless to say.

  26. Mysterry says:

    @lalaland13:

    I’m glad you got that under control!

    A lot of people just tend to say “OK, I will pay the bill.” instead of asking for proof that the bill is actually there’s.

  27. Orv says:

    Also, even if you do tell the debt collector to go away, they can still re-sell the debt to another agency. That starts the whole dance over again.

  28. Prions says:

    Good tips..

    But how about we actually buy what we can afford and not put everything on cards.

  29. lalaland13 says:

    @Lunaped: At first they called me and confused me and I was all “I’m uh gonna have to get back to you on that.” Luckily I smartened up pretty quick, but I’m still embarrassed about the first time they called. And my mom filed for bankruptcy, which I guess is why they were going after me. They’d also send me stuff in the mail like “Pay now!” like yes, I’m just going to write a check for a few thousand dollars and mail it off.

  30. Mysterry says:

    @lalaland13:

    Yeah, a lot of people need to be informed of how they can deal with debt collectors. Most of them are junk debt collectors and like to harrass others and absolutely LOVE to imply that they’re attorney’s. In fact, I’ve gotten phone calls from a specific debt collector that implied they’re an attorney but yet have not received a letter back from them once I sent off a letter asking for for their ownership of the debt or if they were assigned to it, etc, etc.

    Hopefully others out there smarten up just like you! :D

  31. howie_in_az says:

    What happens if one disputes the debt after the 30 day window is up? My sister is being harassed by a debt collector and she never disputed the debt in writing (she didn’t realize she had to). The 30 days are up and we all highly doubt she owes the money.

  32. Mysterry says:

    @howie_in_az:

    I think writing a letter will still work, and in the letter she should put a C&D notice so they stop contacting her by phone. If the debt is validated and is indeed hers, then she should start negotiating with the debt collectors. They probably bought it pennies to the dollar if it’s really old, so probably about 20% of the debt and also negotiate with them to remove it from her credit report.

    That being said, in the letter she should also write that they need to remove it from her credit report or else they’re breaking the law. You should go ahead and start giving her the URLs of the important sites that she will need to go to for more information.

    Good luck on that.

  33. lalaland13 says:

    @Lunaped: haha I used to get all sorts of calls from “attorneys” saying if I didn’t pay up or do this or that, then bad things would happen. I told myself that if this was legit, they’d have hauled my ass to court by now. Nothing. Nada. Zippity do da.

    My mom however, has had to deal with way worse stuff than I have, because she was the one with the actual debts and who filed for bankruptcy. I feel bad for her, and she feels bad for me that being her daughter caused me to get targeted. But in my case, if they had a leg to stand on, they would have kicked me in the ass with it by now.

  34. MitchV says:

    @Roycester: “Dave Ramsey – can you even sign on to his website without your wallet?”

    I’ve never spent a dime on his material… he publishes his broadcasts for free on the Internet and I’ve read two of his books that I checked out at the library.

    That being said, I may buy some of his books as gifts to give. I think he has a good message.

    @lalaland13: Are these student loans? Student loans have implications because they are guaranteed by the government and even filing bankruptcy will not clear them.

    I with they taught this to kids in high school.

    These collectors can do anything/everything to make you upset. You can dictate the terms of communication, but you need to have your stuff together and understand your rights.

  35. Mysterry says:

    @lalaland13:

    :werd: In fact, if they imply or say that they are indeed attorney’s then they’re breaking federal law, and you can and probably should bring them to small claims court or just sue the hell out of them.

    I don’t think your mother’s status should reflect on you though. I believe that it might of been her debt collectors targeting you because of her debt, but otherwise, I wouldn’t understand why they contacted you -UNLESS- they bought your name and information and made up a debt under your name to get money.

    Your Mom might have filed bankruptcy but even then some debt collectors just don’t stop. So she should be careful and have all her paperworks filed away in a safe place that she remembers. That, and she can start rebuilding her credit right away.

  36. Mysterry says:

    @MitchV: “Are these student loans? Student loans have implications because they are guaranteed by the government and even filing bankruptcy will not clear them.”

    It actually depends on the student loan. If the loan is backed up by the government then filing bankruptcy won’t clear them but if it’s a private loan then it will. But even then, private loans are a bitch and a half to deal with when you default on them (i.e. Sallie Mae).

  37. lalaland13 says:

    @Lunaped: @MitchV: It was a parent loan for my education and which she was totally responsible for. And yes, they should teach this stuff in high school, but now that I’ve seen what my mom’s been through since filing 5 years ago, I’m very careful with debt and credit.

    The government has started garnishing her wages for something or other, perhaps the loan. It stinks, but hey, so does divorce.

    Once someone called work to ask for one of my co-workers. It was in regards to a student loan. I talked to them, and when he came in it was all I could do not to rip into him.

  38. @howie_in_az:

    The 30 day window doesn’t mean admission of liability, although debt collectors do claim this all the time.

    [www.law.cornell.edu]).html

    § 1692g. Validation of debts

    “(c) Admission of liability
    The failure of a consumer to dispute the validity of a debt under this section may not be construed by any court as an admission of liability by the consumer. “

  39. I run a small business.

    The lying, cheating and just plain evilness undertaken by telephone debt solicitors to reach a debtor is just mind boggling.

    For example: I know that Jane Doe’s mother died last year as Jane’s mother also worked for me. And Jane’s Mom-in-law had a atroke and is a veggie. Don’t tell me that you are Jane’s mother and trying to reach her at work. I may be stupid, but I am not THAT stupid.

  40. lfrandom says:

    @Lunaped

    Actually even private student loans are generally protected from bankruptcy, they can be written off but it requires you to prove they are an “undue hardship” (see [www.bklaw.com]).

  41. higgy says:

    I currently have one debt collector that has called not my number to my office at work, but my bosses number, when she asked them to stop calling(using an 800 for customers), they got nasty with her, and she hung up on them. then they attempted to contact her boss(and failed), then they contacted the HR department and filed a complaint on my boss.
    they are even claiming to be representatives of the state im living in when they are talking to a live person, but when its a recording (ie my voice mail at work, or my home phone) they dont claim they are state employees.

  42. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    @higgy: See if your IT group can setup a call record button on your phone (depending on your state, a warning or tone may have to be played).

    If you answer and its them, push the button and don’t tell them. Ask for a bit of clarification and get as much information on the recording as possible. They might even be able to make the debt go away as part of the settlement.

    I am NOT a lawyer and you should consult with an attorney before acting on this post.

    CHECK YOUR STATE LAWS FIRST, what I am suggesting is a felony in some states. Don’t try to determine what state they are in. Interstate calls are generally regulated by federal law, and you should be OK unless you should have known otherwise. Until recently there was no case law on this, but the California Supreme Court just ruled against a large investment company saying that the California law did apply when the other end of the call was in Georgia. There were no damages or penalties.

  43. Mysterry says:

    @lfrandom:

    That’s interesting. I thought that the governement stopped that. Reason for me thinking that is because with Sallie Mae, you could do that, but because the government wasn’t going to write off a check to them any more they became private because the government wouldn’t back them up anymore.

    I’ll have to read more up on it then. Thanks for the link.

  44. Shali says:

    About the best website I’ve come across that provides information on getting out of debt is at the link below:
    [www.debtconsolidationcare.com] Debt Consolidation Care covers everything from ‘How To Deal With Debt Collectors’ to Payday Loans to Credit repair. Very informative website with over 116,000 members.

  45. jayphat says:

    I used to have a boss who’s wife was a big spender. They would call him at work to harass him about his debt. Is this legal?

  46. 420greg says:

    Paying on a debt does not restart the clock on the SOL.

  47. evilpete says:

    It should also be noted that when negotiating with a collector to pay off your dept you can pay it for as little as $0.15 to 0.$18 on the dollar.

    They paid less then half that when they bought the dept.

  48. GillY says:

    It’s harder these days to come up with a plan when you simply don’t have a lot of options where to get assistance in debt problems. People constantly give their stories on how they’re able to manage consumer debt but then the very next month the Federal Reserve shares that it is just getting worse. The growing consumer credit statistics are based on assorted factors that’s hard to foresee what will happen and explain what has happened. Either way, the newest report is that consumer credit incremented in March along with the number of job openings. No matter how you interpret that, it shows there is hope for our future. The increase in unemployment is due largely to those who lost battle looking for a job, and looking again, not necessarily more people truly becoming unemployed.