One of the groups that was not bailed out during the recent financial crisis has been the American consumer. Congress took care of the firms on Wall Street, but they didn’t take care of the millions of Americans forced to confront the realities of bankruptcy, foreclosure and uncomfortable confrontations with menacing bill collectors. It appears, sadly, that every man and woman must find their own way through this financial tragedy.
Bill Collectors really want their money, like the rest of us. Some of them seem to feel that it’s O.K. to resort to flat out thuggish intimidation to get their money back. That might work on The Sopranos, but it shouldn't work in real life.
Part of the reason abusive bill collectors can have their way with the public is because many citizens do not know their rights. Bill collectors prey on the uninformed in a terrible way: They may threaten to have you arrested, harass your relatives, call all hours of the night, and engage in other types of atrocious behavior to get their money out of your hide.
One woman successfully sued a rogue bill collector after he called her repeatedly with threatening language. The woman, a senior citizen, was told by the man to "Stop with the sob stories and pay your god d*m bill!" This kind of behavior is not acceptable, and bill collector harassment doesn’t have to keep you up at night.
The Federal Trade Commission states that complaints against bill collectors are rising, reaching the highest level they've seen in the past 3 years. Most of the complaints focus on vulgar language, trying to collect more than the amount of the true debt, and extra fees, such as court costs.
You have rights that can protect you from bad and malicious bill collectors. You want to keep these in mind as you work yourself out of debt:
1) There is something called "The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act". If you are not familiar with this document, get familiar with it. You can read it by clicking here.
2) A bill collector cannot contact you at work if your employer does not approve of the contact. Let the bill collector know that this is the case and they must legally stop contacting you at your job.
3) Bill collectors cannot call you before 8 am or after 9 pm. The only exception is if you give them permission to do so.
4) A bill collector can only contact your friends and family if they are trying to find a way to get in touch with you. However, some of them may do this in order to harass or embarrass you. If that is the case, you may want to tell your friends to tell the bill collector, "She does not live here and I do not know how to get in touch with her. Please don't call here anymore." Then, get the bill collector's information from your friend and reach out to them when you can.
5) You can get bill collectors to stop contacting you altogether by sending them a letter telling them to stop. You still must pay the debt, but they won't be calling you during dinner.
6) The bill collector cannot curse at you or use foul language and they must tell the truth about how much you owe. They cannot threaten to sue unless they are serious about it, and they can't touch your 401k or IRA.
7) If the bill collectors call you, you can demand that they send you a written notice of the amount you owe and who you owe the money to. If you do not believe that the debt is yours, you can write a letter to them stating that this is not your debt. They must then send you proof that the debt is actually yours.
If you feel that a debt collector has violated any of these rules, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov. Remember that you are not powerless in this situation.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of Financial Lovemaking 101: Merging Asset with Your Partner in Ways that Feel Good. He does regular commentary in national media, including CNN, CBS, NBC and BET. For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com. This information does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice, please consult your attorney.