Your boss comes to your cubicle and hands you a slip of paper with a name and telephone number on it. "These folks are calling for you at the central administrative office. I think you better take care of this." You've been avoiding the calls at home, and now, it seems, the debt collectors have found you at work. Falling behind on your bills is hard enough with all the financial stress. Now you're getting calls at work, jeopardizing your job? How are you going to pay your bills if the debt collectors get you fired? Even worse, your wife recently got a call about one of your past due bills and they're telling her that the sheriff is going to come and arrest her if she doesn't pay! You've heard something about fair debt collection, but what exactly are your rights?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a federal law enacted in 1996 to protect consumers from thug tactics being employed by debt collectors trying to shake down debtors for the money they owe (and usually a ton of interest and fees on top). The first part of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act acknowledges that there are debt collectors out there who are lying and cheating to get their money. It's not fair and it's causing a lot of people a lot of problems including causing people to get fired, divorced, and to file for bankruptcy. Listed below are some of the worst creditor tactics that are illegal.
Harassment and Abuse
Debt collectors are not allowed to harass or abuse you or anyone else they get on the phone about your debt. This means they can't threaten to physically hurt you or anyone else. They can't use graphic language or swearing, and they are not allowed to call you (or people you know) repeatedly just to annoy you. They are only allowed to call between the hours of 8am and 9pm in your time zone. Debt collectors are also prohibited from telling everyone that you owe money by publishing a list of people who aren't paying their bills. (Creditors can make reports to credit reporting agencies though.)
False or Misleading Representations
Debt collectors are not allowed to lie and make stuff up to bully you into paying. They can't falsely claim that they are lawyers or government officials. They can't tell you that not paying money to them is a crime (because it's not a crime). They're not allowed to say that you are going to be arrested if you don't pay or that they will send the police or sheriff to your door to get the money. They can't lie about how much money you owe or send you papers and tell you that they are legal papers when they aren't legal papers.
Harassment and false representations are some of the shifty and illegal behavior you are most likely to experience by bully debt collectors. Be aware though that there are many parts to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and other kinds of activity and communications by creditors and debt collectors that are also prohibited.
To find out more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission website at www.ftc.gov. The Federal Trade Commission is a United States government office that enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and provides a ton of free information for consumers.
What Should I do if a Debt Collector is violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?
If you feel that a debt collector is violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, there are several steps you can take to protect your rights.
Contact an Attorney. If you are having a financial crisis you should call a bankruptcy attorney or debtor's attorney and get some legal advice about your situation. Even if you don't ultimately need to file for bankruptcy, an attorney can represent you on the account you're having trouble with or suggest a plan of action. Depending on how bad the creditor's behavior is, an attorney can help you sue the debt collector. Many attorneys provide free legal consultations.
File a Complaint with your State Attorney General. Every state has a government office with an attorney general whose job is to represent the state in legal matters including prosecuting businesses or individuals who are violating public law. To find your attorney general, type "attorney general state-you-live-in" into your search engine. Look for a tab that says "Consumer Protection" or "Consumer Complaints."
File a Complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC does not represent individual debtors in disputes with creditors, but they do keep track of which creditors are violating the law and may use that collective information to impose penalties on companies who are not in compliance with the law. You can file a complaint with the FTC online at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.
Tell the Debt Collector that you are Blowing the Whistle. Next time the debt collector gets you on the phone, let him know that YOU know that what he's doing is illegal. Let him know that you will be contacting an attorney and filing complaints with the proper authorities. You can also specify that any communication from them needs to be in writing and not by telephone.
Debt collectors do not have the right to beat someone when they are down. Creditors do have the right to try to collect on their outstanding debts, but they cannot be abusive in doing so. If you are being hounded by debt collectors, you should seriously consider taking advantage of a free consultation with a licensed bankruptcy attorney for advice on your financial situation.
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