Editorial Policy

Can Debt Collectors Call Family Members?

Erica Sandberg

October 30, 2012

QDear Erica,

I just got a call from someone looking for my sister. The man said that she gave them my number, but that they now need to find her. He asked me to give him her number so he can call her directly.

I asked what it was about, and he said it was a personal matter but very important. I asked who he worked for, and he said he worked for NCO Financial. I looked it up, and it’s a collection agency. I’m not going to rat my sister out, so I hung up. Can collectors call family members like this? What’s going on, and what should I do if they call again? — Rouge

ADear Rouge,

As you deduced, the guy you spoke with was a debt collector. NCO Financial is a collection agency, and yes, he was trying to reach your sister for payment.

To answer your questions, I’ll have to start with how these companies function.Ask Erica

Original creditors, such as credit card companies, hospitals and utility companies, sell delinquent accounts to collection agencies when they cannot get the person who owes them to pay up. Collectors may also buy old accounts from other collection agencies, and because of this, a debt may be sold on the third-party market many times over.

Whichever collection agency is currently holding the debt is the owner, and that’s who the debtor needs to deal with. For example, if your sister had a Macy’s account but failed to pay her bill, Macy’s might have sold it to NCO. She no longer owes the retailer at all, so trying to work something out with Macy’s would be futile because it already charged the debt off.

Collection agencies buy accounts for a fraction of the actual amount owed but try to get the person who owes them to send the entire balance due. Therefore, if your sister’s debt was $3,000, NCO might have bought the account for $1,000. If she paid them the true balance, their profit would be $2,000. A collector’s aim is to get the debtor to pay all of the bill, quickly, which means they can be a little, well, aggressive.

Unlike credit card companies or retailers, collection agencies don’t concern themselves with providing friendly service, nor do most care about protecting a good reputation. Rather than wanting repeat business as a department store or dentist would, they just want to recoup their investment. If the collector must be gruff, demanding and relentless to get the job done, so be it.

That said, all third-party collectors must comply with federal law when they communicate with those who owe. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) clearly outlines what they may and may not do when trying to collect on an account.

One of the Act’s provisions is that the collector may contact other people in their attempts to locate the person they are seeking. It sounds like the man you spoke with did just that. He didn’t discuss your sister’s debt with you, which would have been illegal, but he asked for her phone number, which is legal. You denied him that information and that’s fine. He used his one attempt to find her through you, as collectors are usually prohibited from contacting other people more than once. If he calls again, remind him of that part of the FDCPA and then tell him to not call again before hanging up.

Do let your sister know that she is being sought. While it might be embarrassing for both of you, she may need and want to take care of this matter.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.