Editorial Policy

Do I have to tell collectors where my sister is?

Erica Sandberg

December 13, 2013

QDear Erica,

I have the cellphone number that used to be my sister's. I have been getting calls from people asking for information on how to contact my sister. I know she's in trouble with the credit card companies for nonpayment. Sometimes, I get messages on my voice mail saying that “this call is to collect a debt” and that if I'm not the person they are trying to reach, I should contact them and let them know. But then I call, and they just ask me questions. Where can they reach her? What's her number? I told my sister about the calls, and she said to just tell them to stop calling and say that I don't know where she is. Can I get in legal trouble if I lie and say that? Do I have to give them her new number? What is the best way to handle this? — Missy

ADear Missy,

I'd like you to back out of this situation as swiftly as possible. Your sister's debt issues are not yours, and you've already done too much as it is. If she chooses seek your assistance and support, that's fine — but no more acting as intermediary between her and the collection agencies.

It makes sense that the collector is calling your phone number, as it was once your sister's, and, for all they know, it still is. They also have every right to try to talk with her about what she owes, and to ask for the money. Still, she has rights, too, and that's to keep her financial affairs private.Ask Erica

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law that limits the way third-party collectors can communicate with consumers who aren't the debtor. For example, once they find out you're not your sister, they may ask you how to reach her –but they can't provide any details about the account, such as how much she's in the hole or what they may do to her if they find her.

Now, even though the collector is allowed to ask you where your sister is located and what her current contact information is, you have no obligation to give that information. You're not on trial and under oath. That means that you could say that, last you heard, she's been living in the North Pole with Santa Claus. Or, if you don't feel like getting creative, you could choose not to answer when you see their number pop up, or hang up on the collector if you pick up by mistake.

Those tactics, however, won't stop your phone from ringing — so I strongly suggest that you simply end the calls altogether. The next time collectors reach out, tell them firmly to stop. Say that you are not the person they are trying to contact.

If the calls persist after you give a verbal command, write a brief letter to the company explaining that you have nothing to do with the debt and that you want the calls to cease immediately. Cite the FDCPA, too, as it's always a good idea to show that you understand consumer protection laws. Send your letter certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies. If you're getting calls from multiple collection companies, you'll have to send a letter to each. You can find a sample letter here.

If those you have already contacted continue calling, contact the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to file a complaint. After they receive your letter, collectors are allowed to contact you only to say that there will be no more contact or that they will be suing the debtor (your sister in this case). Beyond that, they are breaking the law — and can be hit with fines.

As for your sister, you may want to tell her that running from her financial troubles is usually a bad idea. Credit damage is only part of the problem. Depending on the age of the debt, it's possible that she will be sued, and a judgment can be outrageously costly. However, only interject if you have the kind of relationship that allows for such a conversation. Otherwise back off and let her deal with the consequences of her non-action on her own.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.