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10 ways to fight back against a debt collector

Hang up. A debt collector has no right to threaten, harass or insult you. If they do, hang up the phone.

"If you can't do it right now, you can't do it right now," says Samantha Spragg, a former debt collector in West St. Paul, Minn. "Don't even argue with people. Just hang up."

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Prioritize your bills. No matter what a debt collector says, an unpaid credit card bill is not the most important bill you have to pay this month. Providing necessities for your family comes first. Bankrate.com has 16 rules will help you prioritize your debts.

Learn your rights. When collecting a debt from you, a debt collector must play fair. For details, check out the consumer brochure on fair debt collection from the Federal Trade Commission.

Many states have their own debt collection laws. For more information, contact the attorney general's office in your state.

Ask for a supervisor. Request that you speak to a manager or supervisor at the debt collection company. Make it clear that you understand your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and you want the abuse to stop.

"You don't threaten the smart ones. You pick and choose your victims for lack of a better term," says Michael Flannagan, a former debt collection supervisor in Tacoma, Wash. "We rely on the ignorance of the debtor."

Contact an attorney. Once you have an attorney, a debt collector must contact the attorney, rather than you. An attorney may be able to answer questions regarding your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and specific debt collection laws in your state. To find an attorney near you, visit the Web site of the National Association of Consumer Advocates and search for an attorney with expertise in debt collection in your area.

Get proof. If a debt collector is breaking the law and harassing you, you'll need evidence.

"If it's legal in your state, you can tape the conversation," says Steve Tripoli, a consumer advocate with the National Consumer Law Center.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia allow you to secretly tape your phone conversations.

You'll also want to keep a paper trail. File all collection letters and keep detailed notes of collection calls. Note the day and time of each call, the name of the collection agency, the first and last name of the caller and what was said.

Stop contact. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you the right to cease contact with a debt collector. You can stop a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter to the collector and telling them to stop.

A phone call won't work. "If they said 'Don't call anymore,' we'd set it up for the next day to call," Spragg says.

It's a good idea to send the letter certified mail, so you'll have proof that the debt collector received it. Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you again except to say there will be no further contact or to notify you that the debt collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action. Sending a letter to a collector will not make a debt go away if you owe the money. The debt collector or your original creditor may still sue you.

If you don't owe the money, dispute the debt. A debt collector must send you written notice telling you the amount of money you owe and the name of the creditor. If within 30 days of receiving this notice you send a debt collector a letter stating you do not owe the money, a debt collector may not contact you. It's a good idea to send this letter certified mail, so you'll have proof that the debt collector received it. A collector could renew collection activities if proof of the debt, such as a copy of a bill, is sent to you.

File complaints. Report debt collection problems and abuse to your state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission.

You can also report a debt collector to the Better Business Bureau.

Sue. If a debt collector has violated the law, you have the right to sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you may recover money for the damages you suffered plus an additional amount up to $1,000. Court costs and attorney's fees also may be recovered. A group of people may sue a debt collector and recover money for damages up to $500,000, or 1 percent of the collector's net worth, whichever is less.

Sources: National Consumer Law Center and Fair Debt Collection, a brochure for consumers from the Federal Trade Commission.


-- Updated: April 15, 2004




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