If you fall behind on your monthly payments, your creditors may hand over your account to a debt collection agency. It is the debt collector’s job to attempt to recover the money you owe. Debt collectors benefit monetarily when they are successful in making consumers pay and so they are often willing to threaten or harass consumers in order to collect money.
Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), such practices are illegal. If debt collectors violate your rights, you can take legal action against them.
Stop the Phone Calls
When you first receive a phone call from a debt collector asking you to pay a debt, do nothing for at least for five days. That is the time frame in which the FDCPA requires the collection agency to send you a written “validation” notice, telling you how much money you owe, to whom you owe it, and what to do if you believe the debt is not yours.
If you have determined that you don’t owe any or part of the money, you need to request that the debt be “verified.” You must do this in writing within 30 days after receiving the validation notice. Upon receipt of your request for verification, a collector may not contact you again unless he or she provides proof – generally in the form of a bill or statement – that the debt is actually yours. If verification is not forthcoming, all contact, including phone calls, must cease.
If the debt is yours, you can still stop all phone contact either by informing the collector that all future communication must be made through your attorney, or by writing what is known as a “no calls,” “stop calling” or “cease and desist” letter. In the letter, ask that all future communication be made in writing. Send this letter via certified mail with return receipt requested, and keep a copy for your records. If you are involved with a credit counselor, you typically can request that he or she write the letter on your behalf.
The Debt Collector’s Response
Once the collection agent receives the letter, he or she is legally obligated to stop calling you. After this point, he or she may only contact you to verify that there will be no further contact or to inform you of any legal action against you, such as a lawsuit.
Be aware that although a letter stops collection agents from contacting you legally, they may break the law and continue to call anyway. If the letter doesn’t stop the phone calls, you can consider changing your phone number or blocking certain phone numbers.
A more fruitful strategy may be to inform the collector that you are familiar with the FDCPA regulations and that you intend to contact either your state attorney general’s office or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is the enforcement arm of the FDCPA. When you contact the authorities, let the appropriate official know about the collection agency’s violation of the law.
Debt collectors may rely on consumer ignorance of their rights to continue to abrogate rules and get away with illegal behavior. But once they are convinced that you are a knowledgeable consumer and prepared to take legal action — which means suing a collector in state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated — annoying collection calls may well end.
In addition, to help prevent further telephone intimidation, you can threaten to record all future phone calls from the collector, or actually do it by hooking up your phone to a recording device. Most states have laws requiring that you inform someone if you are going to record a phone call, so make sure that you do so. Let the collector know that you intend to use the recordings as evidence in a legal proceeding against the collection agency.
If you decide to take legal action, first report the debt collector’s violations to both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and your state attorney general’s office.
Then you may choose to sue the collector. If you suffered damages such as lost wages, the goal of your lawsuit should be to collect damages. If you can’t prove any monetary damages, you still may be awarded up to $1,000 in a lawsuit.
Keep in mind that a collection agency also can sue you to recover the money you owe. Although the law regulates the behavior of debt collectors, it does not absolve you of paying your debts. Don’t ignore a lawsuit summons, or you will lose your opportunity to present your side in court.