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How to Deal with Bill Collectors

by Chris Cooper

So you’ve screwed up. You’re drowning in debt. Maybe the credit card was burning a hole in your pocket and you just had to get the HDTV. Or maybe you or a family member had a medical emergency while you we laid off. It doesn’t matter to your creditors; they lent you the money and now they want it back.

The lender will try to work with you for a while and its best to try to negotiate with them at this stage. If you can’t work something out or just don’t pay, they will send your file to either an in-house bill collector or, more commonly to an outside agency.

Bill collectors are a tough bunch. They have heard all the sob stories and aren’t interested in yours. They mostly get paid on commission, so they just want to get money out of you and move on.

There aren’t many laws to get you off the hook as far as the debt goes (bankruptcy is your only choice). But there are laws that prevent harassment and abuse by bill collectors. Debt collectors tend to try to ignore these laws, but if you know your rights and insist on them, at the very least you might be able to collect damages if the bill collector persists in ignoring them.

The major law protecting you is the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Some states have their own versions of this law.

The law does not prevent a bill collector from contacting you, but it must be at convenient times. Contact can’t be before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if you tell him that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

If you don’t want to be harassed, get the name, address and telephone number of the bill collector. Then send a certified letter, return receipt requested telling the collector to leave you alone. Once the collector receives your letter, he can not contact you again, except to say there will be no further contact or to notify you that the bill collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action against you, such as sue you or report your delinquency to a credit bureau.

The bill collector can contact friends, relatives or neighbors, but just to find out where you are. They are not supposed to be spreading the word that you’re past due on your debts.

Within five days of first contact, the collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount of money you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money. You have 30 days to dispute the debt, in writing (certified mail RRR again). The bill collector is then not allowed any other contact with you until he is able to send you proof of your debt.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the agency charged with enforcing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:

Debt collectors may not:
  • Use threats of violence or harm;
  • Publish a list of consumers who refuse to pay their debts (except to a credit bureau);
  • Use obscene or profane language; or
  • Repeatedly use the telephone to annoy someone.
Debt collectors may not use any false or misleading statements when collecting a debt. For example, debt collectors may not:
  • Falsely imply that they are attorneys or government representatives;
  • Falsely imply that you have committed a crime;
  • Falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit bureau;
  • Misrepresent the amount of your debt;
  • Indicate that papers being sent to you are legal forms when they are not; or
  • Indicate that papers being sent to you are not legal forms when they are.
Debt collectors also may not state that:
  • You will be arrested if you do not pay your debt;
  • They will seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages, unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so, and it is legal to do so; or
  • Actions, such as a lawsuit, will be taken against you, when such action legally may not be taken, or when they do not intend to take such action.
    Debt collectors may not:
  • Give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit bureau;
  • Send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it is not; or
    • use a false name.
Debt collectors may not engage in unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. For example, collectors may not:
  • Collect any amount greater than your debt, unless your state law permits such a charge;
  • Deposit a post-dated check prematurely;
  • Use deception to make you accept collect calls or pay for telegrams;
  • Take or threaten to take your property unless this can be done legally; or
  • Contact you by postcard.
However, as I said before, a lot of debt collectors will ignore this law whenever they can. So it is very important that you build a case against harassing debt collectors.

Send repeated certified letters outlining what they said or did.

Tape the phone conversations. Tell the collector you’re doing so. If he continues to talk, he’s considered to have consented to the taping.

If you contest the debt, ask that you be sent proof of it in writing. In many cases, neither the creditor nor the collector can produce this.

Check your credit report and, if you see false entries, contest them right away.

If you do owe the debt, negotiate calmly and in good faith. Because it gives you more time to think, I would try to carry out all negotiations in writing or hire an attorney to do them for you. This will also give you a paper trail if you have to proceed in court.

Do not be bullied into rushing into an agreement and do not make any payments unless the agreement is in writing.

For example, if the bill collector agrees to take half of the amount you owe as full payment and report the debt paid to the credit bureaus, get it in writing. If the collector won’t send you a letter, send him a certified letter accurately stating all the terms of your agreement.

It is not unknown for bill collectors to settle the case with a debtor and then sell the rest of the debt to another collection agency, which will try to collect the unpaid balance. This is why it is very important to have a paper trail.

If you have old debts that have apparently gone away, beware of the "zombie" bill collectors. They are buying unpaid debts for pennies per hundred of dollars of debt and then trying to harass debtors to pay. Even if they only get a few dollars, they make money.

The problem is that in many cases the statute of limitations on collecting the debt is run. If you make a payment, you can reopen the statute, the debt can be reported to credit bureaus as freshly delinquent and you can open yourself up to all sorts of problems. Sometimes even saying the wrong thing to one of these guys can be considered an acknowledgement of the debt, allowing them to reopen the statute of limitations.

If you have any old unpaid debt become familiar with the statute of limitations, generally 4 to 6 years, in the state where you live now and, if applicable, in the states you lived in when you ran up the debt.The best way to handle a "zombie" bill collector is to refuse to speak to him. Just hang up the phone.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is rather vigorously enforced by the FTC and state attorney generals. Make complaints to both is you feel you being unfairly treated.

Also you have a private right of action against the debt collectors. You can sue a bill collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you may recover money for the damages you suffered, plus an additional amount up to $1,000. Court costs and attorney's fees also can be recovered. If you need a lawyer referral, go to National Association of Consumer Advocates website. http://www.naca.net

Also I would suggest you buy or borrow from the library "Money Troubles: Legal Strategies to Cope With Your Debts (Solve Your Money Troubles)" by Robin Leonard, if you have a lot of debt. It best to know what you’re facing and how to handle yourself going in.

Remember, even if you can tame the bill collectors, your debts do not go away. The next step will probably be lawsuits and garnished wages. That is why the best course of action is to negotiate with your creditors from the very beginning.

About the Author
Chris Cooper is a retired attorney who has spent several periods of his life deep in debt. At http://www.credit-yourself.com he tries to pass on some of the knowledge he picked up in his journey to become debt free.
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