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Columns: The Debt Adviser
Steve Bucci   Expert: Steve Bucci
The Debt Adviser
Tell collector that you don't want to hear from him
The Debt Adviser

Dealing with an overaggressive collector

Dear Debt Adviser,
I am 72 years old and my husband is 73 years old and disabled. We live on $1,800 dollars a month, paying $1,197 dollars a month for the mortgage of the house, including taxes and insurance.

I have three credit cards I had paid faithfully until October 2006, when my mother died and I had to pay all the funeral expenses. I called the credit card companies and two of them were very understanding, but the one that only had a $500 credit limit was very nasty.

Now this company hired an attorney and the $500 limit has ballooned to almost $1,900 in eight months. They send me letters every two or three days telling me that they are going to take me to court, take my house and my car and also garnish my Social Security. I called them and I offered to settle for less in monthly payments but they refused.

Would you please tell me what to do? I am very scared about these people and don't know what to do. Due to all of this my husband had a mini-stroke from which he is now recuperating. Thank you very much.
-- Daisy

Dear Daisy,
I have been working with people and their financial problems for over 16 years now. I am frequently surprised by the lengths people will go to pay what they owe, and I am also regularly encouraged by the growing compassion and good common sense that many lenders are using in their collection process.

Then every once in a while a stinker comes along. It sounds like you have a real skunk on your hands. Let me give you some information and then a recommendation.

First off, I am sorry to hear about your husband's stroke. Stress over money matters can be extremely debilitating and solutions should be sought as soon as possible to alleviate the stress and any problems it may create.

With that in mind, let me recommend a few things. First, I recommend that you contact the company and/or its attorney in writing and let them know that you no longer wish to be contacted about the debt. Under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, they must grant your request and stop communicating with you except if they are taking a specific action to collect the debt.

The threats that you are receiving about the debt are untrue and are against the law. The company cannot "take" your house or car or "garnish" your Social Security income. At most, the company may get a court-ordered judgment that would entitle them to put a lien against your home, but I cannot imagine a judge who would put two 70-plus-year-olds out on the street for a $1,900 debt. Under no circumstances could they force you to leave your home or remove your car from your possession.

Social Security wages can only be garnished by the federal government to recover federal debts, or in some cases by an individual to collect child support payments. The collector knew that. Unfortunately you didn't. So now you can relax on those two points.

I know that you want to make good on the debt and pay what you can afford to monthly. However, in the case of the collector who has crossed the line under the Fair Debt Collections Act, I suggest you file a complaint with your state consumer protection department and Attorney General. Additionally, you might consider contacting a reputable credit counseling agency in your area and have them prepare a budget for you and negotiate with the creditor on your behalf.

I think a budget may be in order as you don't have very much wiggle room left for living expenses once you pay your mortgage, taxes and home insurance. Any budgeted savings could be used to pay down the debt and to put aside money for emergencies.

Don't let the aggressive collector get you down anymore. Do what you can and then move forward.

Good luck!

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Aug. 31, 2007
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