The next time you're in a room with six other people, look around: A debt collector is probably hounding one of you.
An April 2014 report from the Center for Responsible Lending found that one in seven Americans is on the receiving end of debt collection activities.
More concerning is the fact that some of these consumers may not owe the debt at all. Accounts are bought and sold, and balances may be incorrectly stated or settled accounts erroneously listed as in default.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of debt collection calls -- regardless of whether the debt is valid -- here are four steps to stop abusive debt collection practices.
Step 1: Ask for proof of the debt
When a debt collector contacts you for the first time, always ask for proof of the debt.
A popular scam involves collection calls for debt that doesn't even exist. In other cases, third parties buy debts that may have been previously settled or paid off.
Every collector must send you a written "validation notice" telling you how much money you owe within five days after they first contact you. This notice also must include the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money and how to proceed if you don't think you owe the money.
After receiving the validation notice, you have 30 days to dispute the validity of the debt. For example, send a copy of the settlement agreement or other documentation if applicable.
Step 2: Stop letting them ruin your day
Nothing puts a damper on your day quite like a debt collection call. Even if it's a valid debt, get off the phone with these people.
Rather than experience that sinking feeling every time the phone rings, ask debt collectors to communicate with you in writing. Under federal law, they have to comply. If they don't, see Step 4.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has several sample letters on its website you can use to request that a collector contact you in a way you prefer, such as:
- By mail only
- Through your attorney
- By phone at certain hours
Step 3: File a complaint about abusive behavior
Perhaps the collector will continue to call even after you've asked him or her to stop. Or maybe the collector will start calling your neighbors and telling them you owe a bad debt.
Both moves may be illegal and should be reported to the government.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, debt collectors are prohibited by law from doing many things, including the following:
- Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you have agreed to accept early or late calls.
- Making threats, using obscenity or calling repeatedly to annoy you.
- Publishing a list of individuals with outstanding debts.
- Falsely claiming to be a lawyer or someone who works for a government agency.
- Discussing your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse and your attorney.
- Claiming you have committed a crime or will be arrested.
If a debt collector does any of the above, let them know you are aware of your rights and will file a complaint.
When you file your complaint, send all key details of the interaction, including:
- The collector's name
- The date of contact
Step 4: Get a lawyer
Finally, if that doesn't work, it may be time to lawyer up.
Federal law allows you to sue a debt collector for abusive behavior. You could be awarded damages, plus attorney's fees. If enough other people are having problems with the same collector, you could file a class-action lawsuit.
Some consumer attorneys will take these cases for free, but you need to have great documentation. If you sent a "do not call" letter, it should have a return receipt so you can prove the collector got it. If the company is being abusive on the phone, keep a log to record the time of every call, the person to whom you spoke, and what he or she said.
To find a free lawyer, look for consumer attorneys who offer free consultations.