Consumers have rights against debt collectors

Those annoying phone calls from debt collectors during the day can take a toll on a person’s life.

People entangled in a financial bind should remember that they have rights, too, said the spokeswoman for the local Better Business Bureau.

Dottie Callina said the Federal Trade Commission enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prevents collectors from being abusive, unjust or deceptive when collecting from a consumer.

“Under the [Act], a debt collector is someone who regularly collects debts owed to others,” she said. “This includes collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis, and companies that buy delinquent debts and then try to collect them.”

Personal, family and household debts are covered by the Act, she said. This includes a personal credit card account, an automobile loan, a medical bill, or a mortgage. The Act does not apply to debts acquired by operating a business, she said.

A debt collector should not call a consumer during inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m., or after 9 p.m., unless a person agrees to it, she said. Collectors shouldn’t contact a person at work –– if they have been instructed not to do so orally, or in writing.

“If a collector contacts you about a debt,” Callina said, “you may want to talk to them at least once to see if you can resolve the matter, even if you don’t think you owe the debt, can’t repay it immediately, or think that the collector is contacting you by mistake.”

A person can stop a collector from calling him or her by requesting it in writing, she said. A consumer should make a copy of the letter and send the original by certified mail and pay for a return receipt. That way, what the collector received can be documented, she said.

Callina said, once a collector receives the letter, he or she should not make contact again except to advise you that there will be no further contact, or to make you aware that specific action, such as filing a lawsuit, will take place.

The letter does not get rid of the debt, stressed Callina. Rather, it just stops the often annoying and harassing contact.

The debt collector should not contact the consumer if he or she is represented by an attorney, Callina said. If there is no attorney involved, the collector may contact other people to find the location or contact information of the consumer. Debt collectors are usually not allowed to contact third parties more than once, unless it is an attorney, or spouse, she said.

In addition to telephone calls, debt collectors must send a “validation notice” letter, which contains: information about the amount of money owed; that the debt is due five days after contact; the creditor’s name; and the steps to follow if the money isn’t owed by the recipient of the letter, she said.

“If you send the debt collector a letter stating that you don’t owe any of the money, or asking for verification of the debt, that collector must stop contacting [you],” said Callina.

This letter must be sent 30 days after the validation notice is received, she said. A collector can keep contacting the consumer if a written verification of the debt is sent, such as a copy of a bill for the amount owed.

Debt collectors are not allowed to use threats of violence or harm, publish a list of names of people who refuse to pay their debts, use obscene or profane language and repeatedly call to annoy the consumer, she said.

Callina said collectors can’t lie when collecting a debt, such as falsely claiming they’re attorneys or that the consumer has committed a crime. They are not allowed to say things such as the person will be arrested, if the debt isn’t paid, she added.

For more information about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, visit http://www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fdcpa/fdcpact.htm.