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Debt Collection Abuse? What Debt Collectors Can and Cannot Do


With the economy slumping and food and gas prices through the roof, many Americans are finding it difficult to keep up with their monthly expenses. Add in a layoff, medical problem or other unforeseen expense and it's easy to fall behind in your bills ... making you a ready target for debt collectors.

Even if you fall behind in bills, you still have a right to be treated with respect. Keep reading to find out YOUR rights if a debt collector calls.

There are an estimated 6,500 collection agencies in the United States, and complaints against them rose 26 percent in 2007, and 43 percent in the last five years, according to the Better Business Bureau.

For the past three years, in fact, debt collectors have been the subject of more complaints than any other industry, according to The Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Among the top complaints:

  • Using vulgar language

  • Trying to collect more than they're owed

  • Sharing the person's debt information with friends and family

  • Trying to collect extra fees such as late fees or court costs

It's quite common for debt collectors to use this type of harassing, intimidating behavior to try to get you to pay ... but it's not always legal for them to do so.

If a Debt Collector Calls, What Rights Do You Have?

Knowing your rights is the first step to protecting yourself from a collection agency, and your first right is to have proof that the debt is yours. Ask the debt collector to send you written proof of the debt.

Otherwise, it's possible the debt may actually belong to someone else with a similar name. Also, before you agree to pay anything or state that you do owe the money, find out if the debt is still enforceable. Depending on your state, certain debts have statute of limitations that range from three to 15 years.

If, in fact, you believe you don't owe the debt, you can get a debt collector to stop contacting you by sending them a written letter stating you do not owe the money. While the debt collector may not contact you after this point, you can still be sued for the money if it's determined that the debt is yours.

What CAN the Debt Collector Do?

The collector may contact you by mail, in person, by telephone, telegram or fax. However, they may not contact you at unreasonable times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree.

debt collection

Certain debts expire after three to 15 years. To find out the statute of limitations in your state, contact your state attorney general's office.

If you have an attorney, the collector is required to contact him or her instead of you. However, if you don't have an attorney a debt collector may contact other people, typically only once, to find out where you live or work, or to get your phone number. The collector may not tell anyone other than your attorney that you owe money.

What CAN'T the Debt Collector Do?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires that debt collectors treat you fairly and prohibits certain methods of debt collection. According to the FTC, debt collectors may NOT:

  • 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

  • Say you will be arrested if you do not pay your debt

  • Say they will seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages, unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so, and it is legal to do so

  • Say actions, such as a lawsuit, will be taken against you, when such action legally may not be taken, or when they do not intend to take such action

  • Send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it is not

  • Use a false name

  • Collect any amount greater than your debt, unless your state law permits such a charge

  • Deposit a post-dated check prematurely

  • Use deception to make you accept collect calls or pay for telegrams

Consumer Justice

If you feel you have been harassed or abused by a debt collector, report the problems to your state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission.

You can also sue a debt collector you believe has violated the law up to one year from the date of the violation. You can recover damages, attorney's fees, and court costs, along with up to $1,000 additional. A group may also sue a collector for up to $500,000 in damages or 1 percent of the collector's net worth, whichever is less.

If you do enter into negotiations with a debt collector, make sure to get everything in writing BEFORE you pay anything. Along with the amount you agree to pay, ask for the negative information to be removed from your credit report, or at least listed as "paid in full" rather than "paid in settlement."

One final tip, debt collectors' commissions are based on the business they do each month. So negotiating near the end of the month may give you some leverage.

Recommended Reading

Paying Your Old Bills Can Actually HURT Your Credit -- What You Need to Know

The 10 Dumbest Everyday Mistakes People Make With Their Money


Federal Trade Commission: Fair Debt Collection July 7, 2008 February 29, 2008

MSN Money

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