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Don’t Let Debt Collectors Drive You Up the Wall

May 23, 2013
Personal Finance
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As seniors, we’re perfect targets for debt collectors on the telephone. Since many of us are retired, we’re more likely to be at home when the harassment comes, and we’re more apt to still have the land lines that they like to call on. Some of us will be less likely to push back against the aggressive techniques employed by some agencies, too. And to top it all off, we don’t know much more than the average American about what our rights are when the phone’s ringing off the hook.

But we do have rights, and it’s our responsibility to use them.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which was passed in 1977, includes a comprehensive (and very comforting) list of what a debt collector may and may not do. There’s more in the Act than we can list here, but Will Trefethen of Credivac, Inc. mentions a few common types of harassment:

  • The use or threat of violence.
  • The use of obscene or profane language or language designed to abuse or harm the listener or reader.
  • The publication of a list of debtors, other than that reported to a credit bureau.
  • The advertisement for sale of any debt to coerce payment.
  • Causing a telephone to ring or engaging anyone in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to abuse, annoy, or harass any person at that number.

And they can’t lie to you, by saying things such as:

  • Stating that they are a federal or state agency and can impose fines or jail time for failure to pay a debt.
  • Claiming to be an attorney when in fact they are not licensed to practice law.
  • Falsely stating that a lawsuit has been (or will be) filed.

What can you do when you’re convinced that your legal rights are being violated by a bill collector? Alexis Moore, a risk-management consultant with Golden Foothills Collections in Sacramento, CA, has a few tips:

  • Get help from a third party, such as a family member, a friend, or a senior-center
  • Document everything: keep all voice mails, letters and emails.
  • Use caller ID, and don’t answer the phone if necessary.
  • Contact a risk-management consultant or attorney who specializes in helping people who are being harassed.

Ryan Glover, a Certified Financial Planner in Greensboro, NC, adds that, “At any time, you can notify a debt collector in writing to cease all communication. They must immediately cease all contact except to notify you that your notice was received or to notify you that a specific remedy will be sought in connection with the debt. The penalties are quite substantial when a debt collector ignores such a request.

“Remember that any written communication to a debt collector should be sent certified mail to substantiate any future claims for damages.”

What’s the collector risking if you can prove he’s been harassing you? He could be on the hook for actual damages (whatever they might be) plus as much as $1000 in additional damages. Of course, if an attorney brings a successful class-action suit, damages could be much higher.

Lastly, don’t forget about small claims court. It’s designed for folks like us who are not attorneys and have the time to set things right. Glover was hit with a $30 claim several months after he canceled his account with a big cable company. They ignored repeated inquiries about the claim, returned his check for the $30, and sicced a couple of collections agencies on him. But when the thirty-buck claim hit his credit report, Ryan had had enough: “I took them to small claims court in Guilford County and sued them for $5000 under the US Fair Debt Collections act . . . The judge ended up granting me a $3000 judgment under unfair and deceptive business practices.”

So don’t despair. If you pay your bills, the law’s on your side. Study your rights, save that correspondence, and know that you can prevail in court if necessary. It may take a little time and patience, but you can beat those bogus bill-collectors.


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