Drowning in debt is bad enough, but getting harassed by debt collectors makes it even worse. “A lot of people believe that a debt collector has every right to treat them like crap and they have to suffer in silence because they owe money,” says consumer rights lawyer Gary Nitzkin. “They don’t have to suffer abuse.”
The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) has several provisions that protect consumers against third-party debt collectors like collections agencies. Credit Sesame talked to Nitzkin about what you need to know—and how to fight back if a collections agency violates your rights.
Here are some of the third-party debt collector actions that are forbidden by FDCPA:
- Disclosing your debt to other people. Debt collectors can call your friends, relatives, employer, or others in their efforts to locate you, but they can contact cannot legally tell outside parties about your debt. This one is a “big no-no,” according to Nitzkin, although he sees it happen a lot.
- Lying or misrepresenting themselves. Under FDCPA, debt collectors cannot make false statements like misrepresenting the amount you owe, claiming to be an attorney, or using a false company name.
- Using swear words or threatening violence. Debt collectors might try to coerce you into paying up by using profane or intimidating language, but this practice is illegal.
- Calling repeatedly. Debt collectors might try to annoy you by calling repeatedly, but according to Nitzkin, calling three times per day or more often is considered harassment in most jurisdictions.
- Calling outside of reasonable hours. FDCPA defines inconvenient hours as before 8 in the morning or after 9 at night in your local time zone. Legally, debt collectors are not supposed to call during those hours. They also cannot call you at work if you tell them (in writing or over the phone) that you’re not allowed to receive calls there.
Any of these behaviors sound familiar? If so, here are some strategies for making them stop.
- Send a cease and desist letter. Sending the collector a cease and desist letter by certified mail or fax should stop the calls. Nitzkin says to include your name, address, name of the creditor that you owe the debt to, and a very simple statement asking that they stop contacting you immediately. “Don’t get fancy or get cute,” he adds. “Don’t try to lawyer them.” Once the collector receives your letter, they cannot contact you again (however, you still owe the debt unless it was in error, so they can sue you over the debt).
- Keep a call log. If the calls persist despite your letter, write down the date and time each time the collector calls. Also note if the collector breaks any of the other rules above such as using foul language or making threats.
- Consult a consumer rights lawyer. If a creditor violates your rights, “you can get $1,000 plus damages and lawyer fees in many cases,” says Nitzkin. Most of his cases are settled within 30 to 60 days and plaintiffs (meaning the person being harassed by debt collectors) pay nothing since the creditor covers their legal fees. On top of getting $1,000 for a violation, some plaintiffs also get money for emotional damages. “At a minimum, you need the consumer’s testimonial as to how they were harmed: loss of appetite, loss of sleep, something that outwardly shows the consumer is emotionally distraught,” he explains.
It’s unfortunate that there are still a few Debt Collectors out there that still use such unethical practices to get their job done. However, you as a consumer still have rights and don’t have to tolerate this behavior for very long.