Guest Article by Neal Frankle CFP® from CreditPilgrim.com
If you are behind on your payments and bill collectors are hounding you they may try to make you feel like you’ve broken the law. Chances are high that you aren’t a criminal – but the bill collectors just may be.
That’s because there are laws and regulations which protect consumers from unfair practices many collection agencies engage in.
They know better than to carry out some of the nastier ploys but they cross the line anyway. That’s because they think most debtors will fall for it.
The purpose of this post is to make sure you do understand what is and what is not allowed so you can protect yourself should some unscrupulous debt collector come knocking.
The way collections work:
In most cases, the company you owe money to doesn’t do the actual collections. They assign your debt to a separate third-party collection agency.
At that point, the original creditor steps out of the story and the collections company takes over. The only way this agency gets paid is if you settle (at least some portion of the debt).
If that happens the agency gets a percentage (from 30% to 50%) of what you ultimately cough up.
As a result, some will take extreme measures and many will do whatever they can get away with in an effort to get you to comply with their demands.
Now that you understand what you up against, let’s take a closer look at the 5 things you need to know in order to protect yourself from overzealous collections agents:
Understand The Laws That Protect You
The most powerful Federal regulation that protects you as a consumer is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This statute spells out what debt collectors are and are not able to do.
For example, they can’t harass you or threaten you with imprisonment or violence.
They can’t claim they are connected to the government and they must correctly identify themselves when they contact you. That means they can’t lie about being attorneys if they are not.
They can only call you during reasonable times (after 8 am and before 9 pm) and they can’t call your employer or other third party.
If you have a law firm that represents you, they have to call them rather than you.
They can’t call you non-stop and they can’t call you at work if your employer has a policy against it.
They can’t embarrass you publicly and they can’t try to collect more than is owed. That means they can’t tack on interest and penalties.
And that’s not all. Collectors can’t publish a list of debtors and they can’t send you a demand letter on a postcard.
They can’t threaten to take away your property unless done legally.
Over and above these safeguards, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you the right to demand “debt validation”.
Validation is simply a written request you make to the debt collector to supply you with proof that you owe the amount in question. Unless and until they do that, they have to leave you alone.
Know How to Protect Yourself
Make sure to invoke your rights and demand “validation” in writing within 30 days of the first time you are given notice to pay the debt by the collector. If you fail to do so, you can still fight the charges but the collector won’t have to stay away.
Remember, the validation proof they supply spells out exactly what you owe and to whom.
If you feel you don’t really owe that amount or that you’ve already made arrangements with the creditor to pay the debt back, let the credit know and tell them to steer clear of you.
Even if you haven’t come to terms with the creditor, write to the collector and tell them not to contact you any further.
If you do that, they have to either stay clear of you or they have to inform you (in writing) that they are pursuing other remedies – such as a lawsuit against you.
3. Recognize When Credit Collectors Go Over the Line
If you are forced to deal with a bad actor, contact the Federal Trade Commission and file a complaint. You can also file a lawsuit against the offending party.
You can also contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and register a complaint. This agency overseas the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
You should also consider bringing in an attorney or legal representative who is an expert in credit repair and one who has experience dealing with collections creeps.
4. Understand the Remedies Available to You When the Amount the Collector Seeks is Bogus
Remember that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act demands that the collectors make true statements.
That means they can’t falsely present the amount you owe. And as I said, that includes fees and interest. They can’t tack on “penalties” to the amount you owe the original creditor.
If a creditor engages in any of these activities, exert your rights and contact the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and possibly an attorney.
5. Realize that Stopping the Credit Collector Isn’t Always Enough
Even if you are able to put a leash on a wayward debt collector, you still have to deal with the underlying problem – the amount owed.
Don’t sweep this under the carpet and don’t waste time. Work out a plan and get that debt cleared up in a way that is least detrimental to your credit history.
This is very important because even once you come to terms with the creditor and collections agency, you still might have some rough spots on your credit report.
In other words, even after you work things out, you still could have a damaged credit report.
The bottom line here is to not be complacent. Stand your ground when it comes to debt collectors.
Once you are done with them and the underlying debt, get to work cleaning up your credit history.
If you don’t take that last step, the aggravation that a bad credit score causes could be far worse than the discomfort of a brutish debt collector.
Having said all this, please always remain calm and respectful. Getting into an argument, however well deserved, isn’t going to help you at all.
In fact, it can make your situation worse. Of course some collectors will try to egg you on but don’t take the bait. Chill and always be professional and courteous.
I also suggest that you keep a log of all communications the collection agency has with you. That goes for calls, emails and letters. Write down the name of the person you spoke with and their direct number (but don’t record the calls unless your recording complies with State law).
By keeping records of all the interactions between you and the company, you might just put a lid on their behavior. It might also help support any claims you have against the company.
This point can’t be underestimated. If a collection agency breaks federal law it could even lead to having your entire debt dismissed.