Debt collection, when handled properly, provides a necessary service that can reduce costs for consumers. Yet debt collectors are among the companies that consumers complain about most to consumer protection agencies and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). What to do if a debt collector is calling you? Read on.
- educate yourself
- handle all disputes in writing
- file complaints and dispute accounts – when appropriate
- arrange payment whenever possible
- understand where courts come into the debt collection process
- eliminate the possibility that the debt collector may be contacting you by mistake
- let invalid claims go
- run and hide
- discount the importance of long-standing customer relationships
- think that you can make a valid debt “just go away”
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires debt collectors to follow certain legal processes when they attempt to collect overdue debt. If collectors are calling you, you do have choices and rights. The FTC, which enforces the FDCPA, provides good information. Basically, debt collectors can’t harass or threaten consumers, make false statements, invade debtors’ privacy, or lie.
The formal terms are “debt verification” or “debt validation.” Within five days of first contacting you, the FDCPA requires debt collectors to notify you of your right to validate the debt. You must write to request verification within 30 days of when you are first informed of the debt. Send your request by certified mail.
If a debt collection agency continues to call or send collection notices, the consumer can file complaints with his/her state’s Attorney General’s office and with the FTC. Also, consumers can dispute the account with the major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) and see if the item is being reported. Finally, if a consumer notifies the collection agency in writing to stop calling, the agency is required by the FDCPA to honor the request.
Original creditors can often be easier with which to deal – and less intimidating – for the consumer. Once the creditor sends the matter to a collection agency, there is little that a collection agency can do other than call and send letters asking for payment. When the consumer is able to arrange for some payment, the next step is simply to contact the collector and try to work out a payment plan to resolve the obligation.
Courts only play a role in the collection process if a creditor chooses to refer the account to an attorney licensed to practice law in the consumer’s state – and that attorney files a lawsuit against the consumer for the balance of the debt. Creditors do not typically choose to pursue this route.
It’s important to determine that collectors are calling about a legitimate debt. Most companies will eventually send any delinquent debt to collections (generally anything over a couple hundred dollars), but some hold them “in-house” much longer than others. Since most collection agencies are paid a percentage of what they collect, there is no up-front or out-of-pocket expense.
Under the FDCPA, a consumer has the right to dispute any debt that is sent to collections. If the consumer disputes the debt and the agency is unable to prove that the debt is theirs, then the agency is legally required to stop trying to collect.
Debt collectors may not force you to respond immediately. If they catch you off-guard, be proactive and ask them to call you back in an hour so you can plan. If they call at work or a relative’s home, tell them you are formally requesting they not call you at that location. You also can write to formally request they cease and desist from contacting you, although this does NOT eliminate any debt you owe.
Companies that depend on repeat business and a close customer relationship are therefore less likely to send an account to collections than a large company with which a consumer might only do business over the phone would be. That’s not permission to skip paying bills. It does, however, provide insight into why you may be hearing – or not hearing – from a collector on a given debt.
Demanding that calls stop will not make a valid debt go away. However, it can be useful when disputing invalid debts or when trying to come up with money to resolve an account.
If you are working in good faith to repay your debts, don’t let debt collectors harass and intimidate you. You have the right to be treated with respect while you work to get out of debt and find your way to better financial health.