Editorial Policy

Collectors harassing you? Know your rights

Allie Johnson

June 24, 2016

Threatening you with jail time, telling your boss you’re a deadbeat and cussing you out all are tactics some sleazy debt collectors use to put the squeeze on consumers.

But the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act clearly states that those actions, and many others, are against the law. The FDCPA applies to both collection agencies working on behalf of an original creditor such as a credit card company or hospital — and to debt buyers, which are companies that purchase large amounts of debt at a steep discount, then try to collect the money.

Some shady collection agencies and debt buyers intentionally flout the law. And other companies generally follow the rules, but occasionally get a rogue employee who does something wrong.

“Debt collectors all have the same goal, and some will do almost anything to part you from your money quickly,” says credit and debt expert Dan Sater, who helps consumers repair their credit.

How far will they go? Here are six illegal tactics an unscrupulous debt collector might use to try to get you to pay up:

1. Say nasty stuff. Some debt collectors try to upset you to the point where you will whip out your credit card, Sater says. To get you riled up, these collectors might swear at you, insult your character or hit you where it really hurts. For example, Sater had one client whose husband ran up $67,000 in debt then stepped in front of a train. One debt collector listened to her situation, then sneered, “So, your husband’s dead — so what?” Sater says. He adds: “Some debt collectors will use shock tactics to get money.”

“Debt collectors all have the same goal, and some will do almost anything to part you from your money quickly.”
— Dan Sater,
credit and debt expert

2. Threaten to toss you in jail. You can’t be locked up for failing to pay a credit card balance, medical bill or other civil debt, but shady debt collectors are hoping you don’t know that. In some cases, consumers who don’t speak English well are particularly vulnerable to these types of threats, including the promise to call immigration officials, says Mike Kazerouni, a California consumer attorney who handles debt collection cases. “A lot of times folks will panic and give in,” he says.

3. Refuse to stop calling you. The sound of the phone ringing off the hook can jangle anyone’s nerves. But if you tell a debt collector to stop calling, the collector has to comply, says Michelle Dunn, an author and consultant for the debt collection industry. However, some debt collectors will tell you they can keep calling until you put the request in writing, which isn’t true, Dunn says. “Just tell them ‘I don’t ever want you to contact me by phone again,’” she says.

4. Threaten to come to your house. A debt collector can’t come to your house, pound on the door and try to take back that stainless steel fridge you bought on credit, but some collectors want you to think otherwise. “Some will tell you they’re going to come to your house,” Dunn says. In fact, Sater says a debt collector actually did show up at the home of one of his clients. The collector knocked on the landlord’s door, next door, referred to the client as a deadbeat, and falsely claimed he had a warrant for her arrest, Sater says. “It was a way to out-and-out embarrass her,” he says.

5. Pose as government officials. Debt collectors aren’t allowed to lie or misrepresent themselves when collecting a debt. But some do. For example, one of Sater’s clients got a call from the “county clerk,” who told him she had a court appearance scheduled for him about the debt at 1 p.m. that day. The woman told him to call the collection agency if he wanted to avoid going to court. So, the consumer called and made arrangements to pay. “I told him, ‘You were scammed,’” Sater says.

“A lot of times the original creditor is not aware the person they hired is treating their customers this way.”
— Michelle Dunn,
an author and consultant
for the debt collection industry

6. Shame you publicly. Some debt collectors will threaten to — or actually will — tell your boss, friends or neighbors that you owe. In one case Kazerouni took on, a debt collector took public shaming even further. Posing as the consumer, the collector called the consumer’s cellphone provider and asked to have all calls forwarded to the collector’s own phone. When friends called to chat, they instead got a diatribe about how their debt-strapped pal needed to call the collector right away. The tactic backfired when the consumer got a lawyer. “That’s outrageous,” Kazerouni says. “It’s not only unfair debt collection, but also ID theft.”

What to do about bad behavior from a debt collector
To combat debt collector misbehavior, you have to know your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, so you can deal with a debt collector like a pro.

Any time you get a call from a debt collector, you should ask for validation of that debt in writing, Dunn says. That collector is required by law to do so within 30 days or can no longer try to collect on that debt, she says.

It’s also a good idea to keep records of any phone calls, says Sasha Grabenstetter, a former debt collector who is now a consumer economics educator with the University of Illinois Extension. Take down the collector’s name, phone number, the time you talked and what was said, she says.

If you think a debt collector is behaving inappropriately or illegally, you can:

  • Ask to talk to a manager. In some cases, a debt collector might have a bad day or be acting out of line, Dunn says. The call should be on tape, so the manager can go back and listen, she says.
  • Notify the original creditor. “Tell them, ‘This person is harassing me, putting me down,’” Dunn says. “A lot of times the original creditor is not aware the person they hired is treating their customers this way.” Your call might prompt the creditor to fire the company, she says.
  • File complaints. Contact your state attorney general, the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Grabenstetter says.
  • Consult with an attorney. If you’re going to get legal advice, make sure the attorney has experience dealing with FDCPA cases, Kazerouni says.

“Find out about your options and your rights,” he says.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published July 24, 2015.

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