What to Do When the Debt Collector Calls

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A ringing telephone shouldn’t cause instant anxiety, but for many Americans it does. Since the near-collapse of the housing market and the credit crunch, many Americans have been working to pay off their debt, but some have tried to no avail. That’s when debt collectors come calling.

A debt collector can be an employee at a collection agency, a lawyer hired to collect debts or a company that buys debts from creditors at a discount. All debt collectors are subject to the same rules regarding their treatment of debtors, however.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is the piece of legislation that protects debtors from shady debt collection practices. The law doesn’t just give broad, overarching terms of abuse by debt collectors, it outlines very specific practices that are unlawful.

Here’s a breakdown of what your rights are and what to do if and when they have been violated.

Collectors can only call at certain times. According to the FDCPA, debt collectors can only call between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. in your local time zone. They also cannot call you at work if they know that your work prohibits personal calls.

When they call, they can’t harass you. Dateline recently reported on a debt collector that asked a woman if she had ever been raped and another that called a debtor “stupid” and told her she should get off her “fat derriére.”  Debt collectors cannot threaten physical violence or use obscene or profane language when speaking with you. This also means that debt collectors cannot call repeatedly with the intent to annoy or abuse anyone that answers your phone.

Collectors can’t tell others about your debt. If you’re worried that collection agencies will spread the news around town that you owe lots of money, don’t be. Collectors cannot alert third parties to the fact that you are in debt, unless the third party is a spouse or a lawyer that you’ve designated to handle the debt issue.

If you ask them to stop calling, they have to. The FDCPA states that if a debtor writes the collector and lets them know that they will not be repaying the debt or that they do not want to communicate further with the collector, the collector cannot contact you again. There are a few exceptions, however. The debt collector can contact a debtor again to let them know that they won’t be contacting them anymore or to offer a specific remedy for the debt. Of course, just because a collector stops calling doesn’t mean you don’t still owe money. The remedy the offer might be a lawsuit to collect the debt.

Watch out for false claims. If a collection agency is misrepresenting itself or the amount of money you owe, the agency is in violation of the FDCPA. Red flag? Collectors who claim to be affiliated with the police or the government. If a debt collector incorrectly claims to have a warrant for your arrest or says that you have committed a crime in an attempt to coerce you to pay, they are in the wrong and they could potentially be prosecuted.

So, what if you discover that a debt collector has been using some of these shady tactics against you? Is there any recourse? Absolutely.

Here’s what you need to do:

Record everything. If a debt collector is still in contact with you, a taped record of your interactions can be strong evidence in court. Also, keep record of when the collector calls, how many messages they leave and how often they contact you. Protect yourself by copying any documents you sign or send to the collector and always get a return receipt.

Go to the authorities. You might not be the only debtor being harassed by a particular debt collector. This is why it’s important to contact the office of your state’s Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission. If they are able to see a trend in unlawful practices by a debt collector, they will help advocate for you. Also, your Attorney General’s office will be able to inform you of any differences between state and federal debt collection laws.

Contact a lawyer to discuss your case. If you think that a debt collector has violated the law by harassing you or making false claims, you can sue the collection company within one year of the incident.

Debt collectors can have you living in fear if they’re implementing abusive practices. However, part of that fear can be cast off if you save money and learn how to manage your debt. MainStreet can tell you how.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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