The number of complaints about debt collectors is on the rise. From 13,950 reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2000, the number has ballooned to over 66,000 in 2005. And these are just the ones reported–the greater number of complaints go unreported. But this isn’t the worst; a significant number of complaints are coming from consumers who do not even owe the debt.
So what’s going on here? It is apparent that debt collection agencies are becoming increasingly competitive and that they are getting more aggressive in an effort to improve their bottom line. And to do this, they have to put more pressure on the one who owes the debt—the consumer, you.
What can you do if you are caught in the crosshairs of a debt collector? Enforce your rights. As a consumer, you have rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA.) These rights mean that you cannot be lied to, abused, or harassed when a debt collector is trying to collect from you. And these rights have teeth. When a debt collector violates the provisions of the FDCPA. when he or she violates the rights you have under the FDCPA, you can sue for damages and for attorney’s fees.
But when dealing with debt collectors under the FDCPA, don’t make the following four mistakes:
1. Not knowing your rights. You need to remember that you have rights even when you haven’t paid what you owe for whatever reason. We don’t have debtor’s prisons anymore and debt collectors can’t buy a license anywhere to have any kind of open season on anyone who is delinquent in paying debts. This is true because of those rights. So make sure you understand just what those rights are. You can’t claim them if you don’t know them.
2. Not keeping records. To be able to enforce your rights, you’ll need to keep some records. This will mean a phone log (the number of calls and when can both be violations of the FDCPA); notes from the calls (what they say to you may not be abusive, harassing or a misrepresentation); and all the letters they send to you (they must have the proper notices and may not confuse you about what you need to do) as well as the letters you send to them. All of these must be kept for you to better make your case.
3. Not responding on time. You have certain rights that must be exercised within a certain period of time or they are lost. (The right to verification information is one.) So be vigilant about any time limits. Respond when you need to and file suit on time–if it comes to that.
4. Avoiding the calls. Don’t avoid the phone calls either. It is only by dealing with the debt collector that any of your rights under the law may be exercised. And exercising those rights–for example, the all-important right of verification– might just make the problem go away. (If the collector cannot verify the debt, he or she cannot continue to collect it.) So it is better to take the call and talk.
In dealing with debt collectors, it also pays to be smart. So, for example, don’t also make the following three mistakes:
5. Not negotiating. Debt collection agencies most often buy the debt. And they buy it for less than you owe on it. Their profitability comes from getting you to pay more– and possibly a lot more– than they paid for it. So make sure you try to negotiate a lower figure. They just might accept it.
6. Ignoring the debt. Ignoring the debt is only going to cause more problems. If the debt collector understands that his or her efforts are not going to get you to pay, that may start the clock on any lawsuit they can bring on the debt. And that only gives the debt collector the advantage. Keep the advantage with you.
7. Paying by personal check. Paying by personal check gives the debt collector your account number and the name of your bank. That can create some problems with unscrupulous debt collectors who might be tempted to do something shady like setting up an electronic payment. (It’s been done.) And that isn’t good. But it also gives them information they can use if they want to enforce the debt through legal means. Why make it any easier?
If you are faced with any attempt to collect a debt, make sure you get all the information you can. If you do, you’ll be more able to enforce your rights–and they will be less able to intimidate you. Both of these come out on your side of the ledger sheet.