How to Stop Debt Collector Harassment
Financial hardships are stressful. Whether it is because of credit card debt, student loans, mortgages, or past-due service bills, harassing phone calls from debt collectors can add a considerable amount to your level of stress. Debt collector harassment has led to numerous personal bankruptcies, marital instabilities, loss of jobs, and invasions of privacy. Although persistent attempts to collect from you is legal, debt collector harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated by the Federal Trade Commission. Most debt collectors realize this and are good about obeying the law. Sometimes, however, debt collectors may cross the line and engage in debt collector harassment. Fortunately, there are legal actions you can take to stop this harassment.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was created for the sole purpose of protecting consumers from debt collector harassment by prohibiting certain debt collector behavior. It prohibits debt collectors employed by third party collection agencies from engaging in any form of debt collector harassment, but the Act's provisions do not cover collectors hired by the original creditors themselves. Although the act does not extend to the original creditors, but rather third party collection agencies, some states, like California, do have state laws that cover the original creditors. Be sure to check your own state law.
The FDCPA Requires Debt Collectors to
- Identify themselves during every communication.
- Notify the consumer that the communication is from a debt collector and that any information gained will be used in efforts to collect the debt.
- Give the name and address of the original creditor.
- Notify the consumer of their right to dispute the debt, in part or in full, with the debt collector. The debt collector must provide this notice within 5 days of the initial communication with the consumer. Receipt of this notice starts the 30 day period in which the consumer may demand verification of the debt from the debt collector.
- Provide verification of the debt. If the consumer does send a demand for verification within the 30 day period, the debt collector must either mail the consumer the requested verification information or cease collection efforts altogether. The creditor must report any disputed debts to the credit bureau that reports that debt. The consumer may still dispute the debt verbally or after the 30 day period has elapsed, but doing so waives the consumer's right to demand that the debt collector produce verification of the debt. Verification should include, at a minimum, the amount owed and the name and address of the original creditor.
- File a lawsuit in a proper venue. If a debt collector has grounds for a lawsuit, such lawsuit may only be filed in the place where the consumer lives, or where the consumer signed the contract with the debt collector.
The FDCPA Prohibits Debt Collectors from
- Calling at unreasonable hours. The FDCPA assumes that calls outside of the hours between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. in the consumer's local timezone are unreasonable.
- Failing to cease communication upon request. Once the consumer has sent written notice that he or she refuses to pay the debt or requesing and end to communications with him or her, the collector communications must cease. The only other communication that is permitted after written notice is to advise that collection efforts are being terminated or that the collector is pursuing other permitted remedies, such as a lawsuit.
- Repeatedly and continuously calling. Numerous calls with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass are not permitted.
- Communicating with consumers after they have filed bankruptcy. Once the debt collectors have been notified of a consumer's bankruptcy, that debt collector may not contact that consumer with any further attempts to collect the debt.
- Communicating with consumers at their place of employment. Once the debt collector has been advised that such communication is prohibited by the employer, the debt collector may not continue communications there.
- Communicating with consumer represented by an attorney. Once the debt collector becomes aware that the consumer is represented by an attorney, all contact with that consumer must cease.
- Communicating with consumers after request for validation. Once the consumer has sent written request for debt verification, and before the debt collector mails the requested verification, all communication must cease.
- Misrepresenting or deceiving. Using misrepresentation or deception to collect the debt is prohibited. Debt collectors are also not permitted to represent themselves as attorneys or law enforcement officers if they are not.
- Publishing the consumer's name or address on a "bad debt" list.
- Seeking unjustified amounts. Any money demands which were not agreed to in the initial contract the consumer agreed to, or that are not provided by law, are not permitted.
- Threatening arrest or legal action that is either not permitted or not actually contemplated.
- Using abusive or profane language in any communication related to the debt.
- Communicating with third parties, other than the consumer's spouse or attorney.
- Contacting consumers using media that could be embarrassing, such as a post card, or using any language or symbol, other than the debt collector's address, on an envelope through the mail or telegram. A debt collector may, however, use his business name, as long as it does not imply that he is in the debt collecting business.
- Reporting false information on a consumer's credit report or threatening to do so in the process of collection.
Steps to Take Should You Fall Victim to Debt Collector Harassment
The first thing to do is to write the debt collector a letter telling them to stop contacting you. Under the FDCPA, they must follow your request. Keep in mind, however, that unless you plan to dispute the debt or file bankruptcy, the best thing to do is deal with the debt collectors as they come. The longer you wait, the worse the situation may become for you.
Be sure to document all illegal behavior. Any conduct prohibited by the FDCPA should be documented, immediately. Keep a log of all of the debt collector harassment. You may even want to consider having another person present during debt collector phone calls or communications. Some people even record their conversations with the debt collector, without telling the debt collector. This is illegal in some states, so be sure to check your own state's laws.
Next, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. You may request forms from the Federal Trade Commission, or you can write a letter yourself. Send it to 6th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20580, or visit them online at www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. Be sure to include in your complaint the collection agency's name and address, the name of the original creditor, the dates and times of all communications, the names of any witnesses, and copies of any other material (written communications, tapes of conversations, your debt collector harassment log, etc.)
In addition to sending it to the Federal Trade Commission, sending a complaint to your state's agency dealing with creditor harassment is a good idea, too. You should also send copies to the collection agency and the original creditor. In some cases, concerned for their own liability, the debt collector may offer to cancel the debt if you withdraw the complaint. This would be a great outcome for you, because you could avoid the debt, the harassing communication would stop, and you could avoid potentially long proceedings by the Federal Trade Commission.
Another option is to sue the debt collector. Only consider this option if you have a truly strong case of debt collector harassment, and not just because the debt collector is annoying. If you lose your case, the court could make you pay the debt collector's court costs and attorney's fees.
The FDCPA is a strict liability law. This means that you do not have to prove any actual damages. You can be awarded up to $1,000 plus attorney's fees just because the debt collector violated the law. Furthermore, if you can show actual damages, such as the cost of switching a phone number, you can recover those damages, as well.
If the debt collector proves that the violation was unintentional and resulted from a "bona fide error", despite the company's procedure to avoid such errors, they could escape liability.