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Debt collector horror stories

Sure, you're behind on some bills, but nobody deserves to be treated like this.

Badgering phone calls and threats, insults and outright lies -- these are just a few of the unfair and illegal tactics that some debt collectors unleash on consumers. These rogue collectors don't represent the entire industry, but they are not uncommon.

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"It's just threats and intimidation, but you keep it vague," says Michael Flannagan, a former debt-collection supervisor in Tacoma, Wash. "A lot of things bill collectors do are downright dirty and illegal."

Third-party collectors, agencies hired by creditors to collect unpaid bills, are some of the most abusive.

Just ask Angela M., a mother of two, in Denton, Texas. She fell behind on four credit card bills in late 2001.

"When it went to the collection agencies, it turned really personal," Angela says.

"They called me a deadbeat. They called me a criminal. I had perfect, spotless credit before this happened."

Angela's roughly $40,000 in overdue debt stems from a small business. She opened a children's boutique in 1998.

One debt collector accused her of running up her credit card balances with no intention of paying.

One collector told her to sell her house. Another threatened her home. One debt collector scolded her for taking her children to Chuck E. Cheese for pizza. Another collector told Angela, who is expecting another child, that she had no business being pregnant.

The calls were constant and the insults seemed endless.

"They were calling all the time and I told them I couldn't pay and they would just keep calling," Angela says.

"I was terrified. I thought I was going to end up in debtor's prison or at least lose my home."

Intimidation usually works
And that's exactly how a debt collector wants you to feel. They figure if they harass you enough, you'll pay up.

"The collection industry is sometimes so motivated to collect that they'll do anything and I mean anything to accomplish that," says Peter Barry, a consumer rights trial lawyer in St. Paul, Minn.

It doesn't matter that you don't have the money or that you have more important bills to pay first. It doesn't matter that you were sick or had an accident or lost your job.

"You're just an account number they need to get money out of," says Mary Fons, a consumer protection attorney in Stoughton, Wisc.

It may not even matter that it's not your bill.

"Many times the abuse continues anyway, even though it's not that person's bill," Fons says. "They just expect people are lying to them and that's how they treat people."

Not only is this kind of harassment rude and uncalled for, it's illegal.

Know the rules
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was passed in 1977 to protect consumers from abusive debt collectors. There's a whole list of rules third-party debt collectors must follow when collecting a debt.

All those brutal insults and threats aren't supposed to happen. For a summary of federal debt collection rules, click here.

Unfortunately for consumers, some debt collectors violate the law on a regular basis.

They'll threaten to garnish your wages or take away your car or home when they have no right or intent to do so. They'll threaten to press criminal charges.

"They threaten to get the police involved as if not paying a civil debt is a criminal matter," Fons says.

A dirty debt collector will call you at all hours of the day. They'll threaten to tell an employer or spouse or relative about your debt. They'll call you at work after you told them not to contact you while you're working.

"Even if they told you not to call them at work, how do you prove they told you?" Flannagan says. "You bend the rules when they can't prove it."

They'll call your employer several times in a single day to frustrate and embarrass you.

"I had one case where they placed 16 phone calls in 10 minutes to a lady at work," says Jerry Jarzombek, a consumer attorney in Fort Worth, Texas.

A debt collector could even inflate the amount you owe. How much could a debt collector up your bill? One family bounced a $12 check to Papa John's. A debt collector demanded $140.

"It's just rampant profiteering," says Rob Treinen, a consumer attorney in Albuquerque, N.M. "They tried to collect a lot more than allowed by law, more than 10 times the amount."

Why do some debt collectors violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act so often? Because they know they can get away with it.

"The odds are very small that you're going to get caught," Flannagan says.


-- Posted: April 15, 2004




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