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Busting Bill Collectors

PETER HOLLAND: Even if you owe some money, it does not give a debt collector the right to call you at odd hours of the night, the right to call your family, friends, or neighbors, or the right to call your employers.

STEVE LOVEJOY: They cannot call you repeatedly. They cannot use harassing language. They cannot use profanity.

PETER HOLLAND: Threats of violence, calling friends, neighbors, and family, all of those are wrong. They are unethical and they are usually illegal.

ELIOT WAGONHEIM: Tell them through a notice to “cease and desist." It does not have to be notice written by a lawyer.

STEVE LOVEJOY: You write back to the collector and say do not contact me any more.

ELIOT WAGONHEIM: You are now instructed to stop communicating with me to “cease and desist."

STEVE LOVEJOY: If the debtor says stop, do not call me anymore, they got to stop and not call him and contact him anymore.

ELIOT WAGONHEIM: Several other collections agencies who have, have been on the receiving end of some pretty large judgments.

STEVE LOVEJOY: You could stop them from contacting you. Now, if you do that and if you do not contact the creditor yourself, the creditor is likely to take additional steps to try and collect by suing you or what have you.

PETER HOLLAND: But that is separate from getting harassed by a debt collector.

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act regulates what conduct is legal and acceptable in collecting a debt versus what is illegal and unacceptable.

ELIOT WAGONHEIM: They are obligated by law to obey them and if they do not, you can take them to court.

PETER HOLLAND: That is a different issue, however, from whether you owe the money at all. And what I am seeing more and more is what are called “zombie debt collectors" or “scavenger debt collectors" where they will buy a debt that you might have owed it 10 years ago, but nobody ever collected it and you have never paid it.

ELIOT WAGONHEIM: Too much time has elapsed and the statute of limitations as well. It is really the expiration date by which somebody either has to pursue the claim or write it off.

PETER HOLLAND: And now it is no longer collectible and I am seeing more and more people buying those debts and then trying to collect from you and it is wrong. You should not pay it and you should talk to a lawyer.

More on Peter HollandMore on Stephen LovejoyMore on Eliot Wagonheim

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires that bill collectors treat you fairly and prohibits certain methods of debt collection. Of course, the law does not erase any legitimate debt you owe. A collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, telegram, or fax. However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, like before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if the collector knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

To stop a debt collector from contacting you, simply a letter to the collector telling them to stop. Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you again except to say there will be no further contact or to notify you that the debt collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action. Please note, however, that sending such a letter to a collector does not make the debt go away if you actually owe it. You could still be sued by the debt collector or your original creditor.

If you have an attorney, the debt collector must contact the attorney, rather than you. If you do not have an attorney, a collector may contact other people, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Collectors usually are prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once. In most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney that you owe money.

Within five days after you're first contacted, the collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount of money you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money.

In short, debt collectors may not harass, oppress, abuse you or lie to you. Ironically, the bill collector may ultimately be liable to you for communications that:

  • use threats of violence or harm
  • publish a list of consumers who refuse to pay their debts (except to a credit bureau)
  • use obscene or profane language; or repeatedly use the telephone to annoy someone
  • falsely imply that they are attorneys or government representatives
  • falsely imply that you have committed a crime
  • falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit bureau
  • misrepresent the amount of your debt
  • indicate that papers being sent to you're legal forms when they are not
  • indicate that papers being sent to you're not legal forms when they are
  • suggest that you'll be arrested if you do not pay your debt
  • theaten to seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages, unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so, and it's legal to do so
  • threaten to sue you in situations where such action legally may not be taken, or when they do not intend to take such action
  • give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit bureau
  • send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it's not; or
  • use a false name
  • seek to collect any amount greater than your debt, unless your state law permits such a charge
  • use deception to make you accept collect calls or pay for telegrams; or
  • take or threaten to take your property unless this can be done legally

The actual law is much more detailed, but it is every debt collector's duty to comply with each aspect of the FDCPA.

If you believe a debt collector violated the law, you have the right to sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you may recover money for the damages you suffered plus an additional amount up to $1,000. Court costs and attorney' s fees also can be recovered. A group of people also may sue a debt collector and recover money for damages up to $500,000, or one percent of the collector' s net worth, whichever is less.

Law Can Be Stranger than Fiction

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