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New MN Law Seeks To Protect People From Debt Collectors

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- If you have any unpaid debts, those debts may have been sold to a debt buyer. Many debt buyers have come under fire for their aggressive and at times illegal debt collection practices.

This week in Minnesota a new law goes into effect designed to protect consumers.

Jason Christiansen, a 37-year-old Marine Corps veteran, says he was paying the bills and his credit score was great.

That is, they were great until the certified mechanic lost his job after automotive giant Chrysler went bankrupt in 2008. He was able to find a new job but for significantly less pay.

"It was about a $250 a week pay cut," he said.

Jason had $70,000 in student loan and credit card debt. The debt collection calls started almost immediately.

"I would get thirty to eighty calls a day," he said. "They were yelling F-bombs, pretty much any kind of swear word you can think of."

The collectors called his relatives and they called him at work.

"They would call and they would feed it through to my manager and he would say, 'No, you are not allowed to call here on our business line or on his working hours,'" Christiansen said.

Desperate, a friend recommended he contact consumer attorney Mark Vavreck.

"I broke down. I broke down in his office. Literally, I think I got two words out," he said.

Vavreck was able to do more than help; he was able to offer his services free of charge. Vavreck, like most consumer attorneys, takes cases where they believe there has been a violation of federal law.

"I never have a client that pays me a dollar, and for my brethren that are also consumer attorneys, it is the same for them too," he said.

Federal law bars debt collectors from calling relatives or at work if a debtor has asked them not to.

Federal law also provides for all attorney fees to be paid by the debt collectors if federal law has been broken.

Like many consumers, Christiansen didn't know about the laws that protect from aggressive debt collection practices, and he didn't know that he could get free legal help. He was also being targeted by debt buyers, companies that purchase consumers debts and whose tactics are sometimes especially aggressive.

A new law passed by the Minnesota legislature that goes into effect this week is designed to put limits on debt buyers' ability to pursue and win judgments against Minnesota consumers.

Tom Gavinski, who represents the Minnesota Association of Debt Collectors, said his is an important but difficult job. He said in 2010 debt collectors recovered $2 billion in unpaid debts for Minnesota businesses.

Gavinski said consumers should try to negotiate with debt collectors, especially when it comes to medical debts.

"There is quite a bit of room to negotiate," he said. "Payment plans are very, very common and medical providers in some cases are willing to discount that bill."

Both Gavinski and Vavreck agree consumers should never ignore a collection notice. That can lead to a court judgment, including garnished wages. That's what happened to Jason Christiansen before he got legal help.

"I waited way too long on a lot of them. This could have been remedied a long time ago," Christiansen said.

For a detailed account of what debt collectors can and can't do, click here to visit the Minnesota Attorney General's office.

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