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.
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.
calls were constant and the insults seemed endless.
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.
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.
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
Not only is this kind of harassment rude
and uncalled for, it's illegal.
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. But 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.
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.
are aware of their rights, so they take whatever abuse a debt collector decides
to dish out.
"They don't know better," Flannagan
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
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, whose handled debt collection
cases for consumers for 15 years. "Some don't because they don't care. Some
don't because they're disorganized."
Keep 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.
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
There are many
ways to fight back against debt collectors, but whatever strategy you choose,
it's important to get proof of any harassment.
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
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