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.
"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.
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.
was terrified. I thought I was going to end up in debtor's prison or at least
lose my home."
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.
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,
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."
only is this kind of harassment rude and uncalled for, it's illegal.
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
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.
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
"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.
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.
Few consumers are aware of their rights, so they take whatever abuse a debt collector
decides to dish out.
"They don't know better,"
And many consumers feel so stressed
out and demoralized that they keep right on taking the abuse.
think 'I didn't pay my bills so I deserve to be treated this awful way,' '' Fons
says. "They don't know they can get help."
know the law is on their side and they can fight back.
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives consumers the power to strike back against
abusive debt collectors.
The right to
stop contact If you can't take it anymore, you can stop a debt collector
from contacting you by writing a letter to the collector and telling them to stop.
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
Will firing off a letter to debt collector that tells
them to stop contacting you actually work? Will the threatening phone calls stop
just like that?
"More than half the time, yes,
because then you've made a paper trail," says Fons, who has handled debt
collection cases for consumers for 15 years. "Some don't because they don't
care. Some don't because they're disorganized."
in mind that 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.
right to dispute a debt Under the law, 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, the debt collector may not contact you.
collector may only renew collection activities if proof of the debt, such as a
copy of a bill, is sent to you.
right to 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
For more details and tips on how to fight back against
a debt collector, check
out this article from Bankrate.com. Whatever strategy you choose, it's important
to get proof of any harassment.
"I tell people all the
time, 'If you can't prove it, it didn't happen,''' Jarzombek says. "That's
my line of lines."
If a debt collector is breaking the
law and harassing you, you'll need evidence.
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.
Make a tape of each collection phone call.
Flicking on a tape recorder is a great way to swing back at an abusive debt collector.
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia allow you to secretly tape your
phone conversations. For a listing of states, check
out this chart.
In the other 15 states, you can tape with
the other party's permission. And if you tell the debt collector you are going
to tape and he or she keeps talking, that's considered giving permission.
"Just having that recorder on will keep a bill collector
on the up and up," Flannagan says.
an attorney and learning about her rights, Angela M. started taping calls from
debt collectors. She won't even talk to a debt collector if her tape recorder
"Nine times out of 10 they say things they
shouldn't," Angela says.
"If you don't have
it taped, it's just your word against theirs."
Even with the aid of a tape recorder, going toe-to-toe with a debt collector is
no easy task. These folks are experts at intimidation.
can be exhausting at first. It can be stressful when talking to people who are
so mean and so brutal," Angela says.
awhile you feel like a crusader. You're out there and you' re not letting people
get away with harassment."
She encourages other
folks who are feeling harassed by debt collectors to fight back.
up to them," Angela says. "Look at it as you're standing up for the