Not your debt? Don’t take collector’s guff

Dear Debt Adviser,
I hope you can help me. I’m being harassed for someone else’s debt. I think someone bought an old debt of one of my relatives. They don’t have a current address for him, and he lives on the other end of the country. I’m certainly not giving the address to these obnoxious people. In the meantime, I’m being harassed almost daily by them. I got a sample letter from the Internet, to send them to stop the harassment. But they won’t tell me their company name and address. Is this legal? What can I do now?
— Janie

Dear Janie,
My experience is that there are mostly reputable collectors out there who follow the rules. And there are some who don’t. Clearly, you have been contacted by the latter type.

Collecting on a debt is a necessary part of our financial system. Without collectors, write-offs would skyrocket and credit would be even harder to get. In a way, when a collector goes after a delinquent debt, their actions are keeping costs lower for those of us who pay our bills.

With that said, there is no excuse for renegade collectors who are abusive, bullying or fail to follow the law.

What you are going through may not be legal. It comes down to an interpretation of what you call obnoxious behavior and harassment. The rules for contacting a third party to locate a debtor are spelled out quite clearly in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA.

One rule is that the collector cannot contact a third party more than once. However, there are exceptions. The FDCPA goes on to say that subsequent contacts may be made if the debt collector reasonably believes that your response is erroneous or incomplete, and that you in fact have correct or complete information. So on this point, he or she can call you more than once, since it sounds like you know where your relative is.

Where the collector may have violated the law was if he or she communicated to you that the call was regarding a relative’s debt. That’s against the rules. So if that was said, there’s a problem. If you surmised or guessed he or she was collecting a debt, he or she may be in the clear.

On the third point, the collector clearly violated the law by not giving you the collection company information when asked. And last, the collector may have violated the law if his or her phone calls rise to the standard of harassment.

If you feel you are being harassed, I suggest you complain to your local police department. They are good at stopping harassing calls.

Ask the police to get the collector’s contact information. Then send the letter that you found on the Internet. Request the company not contact you again. Have it delivered by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Be sure to also file a complaint — even if you only have a phone number and not the company name and address — with the Federal Trade Commission.

One last thing I want to suggest is that you contact your relative. It is possible that your relation has no idea there is a debt outstanding. Also, the debt may belong to someone else due to a credit file mix-up. It is estimated that about 25 percent of credit files have errors on them.

Let your relative know that the collector is trying to locate him, and let him know that you are being harassed daily over a debt the collector says he owes. The debt could be legitimate or not, but it certainly is wrecking his credit as long as it is attributed to him. He may even thank you for letting him know. Then again, he may ask you for a loan.

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