Debt collection harassment rates number one among consumer complaints in the United States. Despite federal and state laws against abusive bill collection, overly aggressive bill collectors often call repeatedly, at all hours at home and work, and use threats in an attempt to scare consumers into paying the entire debt immediately.
Often, debt collection companies purchase delinquent accounts from the original credit company. It could be a credit card, a store account or any other debt. Buying the account for pennies on the dollar, these companies are motivated to collect large sums and sometimes resort to less than legal tactics.
What are the most common tactics debt collectors use? How can you defend yourself? How can you stop the abuse?
Statute of Limitations
Legally, debts are nothing more than a simple contract. They’re subject to the statute of limitations. What that means is that once the state statute of limitations passes, the debt expires. Debt collectors often don’t care and continue to call, but a check of your state’s statute of limitations will show whether or not what they do is valid.
Robo-Signing and Robo-Filing
Debt collection agencies often practice “robo-signing”, the process of company executives signing hundreds of affidavits without reading them. Sometimes they sign inaccurate affidavits by automation, thus the name “robo-signing”. Unchallenged, they are improperly but effectively used as evidence in court against people who have fallen behind in their bills.
Bill collectors also sometimes “robo-file” collection lawsuits. Robo-filing is the process of filing thousands of lawsuits against consumers each year. Collection agencies don’t necessarily care if the filings are correct. They often win because consumers frequently ignore court notices, don’t open the mail, fail to appear in court and the debt collector wins by default.
Threats of Criminal Prosecution
Creditors who threaten criminal punishment clearly violate the law. Unscrupulous “payday lenders” relish this unlawful tactic, many times because they are based outside the U.S. Tactics like this, as well as calling repeatedly with the intention of annoying you or stressing you out, and using profanity clearly violate the law.
Many Creditor threats directly violate the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Many states also have their own debt collection laws offering other consumer protection.
Debt Collection Harassment: Know Your Rights
The best defense against debt collection harassment comes in knowing your rights. You cannot be arrested for falling behind in your bills. If your state’s statute of limitation has passed, the creditor cannot legally pursue you or ding your credit rating. Debt collectors may not call you too frequently, outside of normal business hours, at work, or through friends or relatives.
When considering fighting back against overaggressive bill collectors, first consider filing a complaint with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB sends the complaint to the debt collection agency. The debt collector must then respond within two weeks to prevent the CFPB from publishing the complaint.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in some cases provides civil damage enforceable in a civil action against the debt collector. More about that here.
Also, here’s more on when phony affidavits are used against you.
The Bankruptcy Option
It may not always be right, but if debts pile up far beyond what can be paid, bankruptcy may well be an option that should at least be considered. For those with lower incomes or those who have lost a job, Chapter 7 may be an option. In other scenarios Chapter 13 may provide debt relief while saving assets like a house where the mortgage is in arrears. Here’s more on bankruptcy options.
Photo credit: Scream by Tim Simpson on flickr. Photo license.