En español | Collections agencies train debt collectors to use tactics that encourage the account holder to pay their debt as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, some of these tactics can turn into abuse, harassment and manipulation.
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U.S. consumers lodged a record 164,361 complaints about debt collectors from Jan. 1 through Dec. 8, 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That was 17 percent more debt-collection complaints than the FTC received in all of 2010.
Among the most egregious of offenders was one California-based debt collector that told a woman who was unable to pay the balance on her daughter's funeral bill that collection agents were going to dig up the body and hang it from a tree if the mother didn't pay. FTC officials say the same woman was also told that the debt collectors would take her dog and eat it. That company was shut down by the FTC.
As outrageous as that scenario sounds, these and other abuses still happen.
Fortunately, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was designed to protect consumers from unfair and abusive debt collection practices.
The FTC has set forth several guidelines to ensure collection agencies don't resort to abusive practices. But if you feel like you're being harassed, abused or treated unfairly, make sure you know your rights under federal law.
Here's what you need to know about handling rude and abusive debt collectors:
What a Debt Collector Can't Do
By law, debt collectors "may not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt."
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act states that a debt collector cannot:
- Use or threaten to use violence or other criminal means to harm you, your reputation or your property
- Use obscene or profane language or language in an effort to abuse you
- Publish a list of consumers who have allegedly refused to pay their debts, except to a consumer-reporting agency. In other words, creditors can't "out" you about your debts or tell third parties, such as your boss or neighbors, that they're trying to reach you about a debt. These are illegal attempts to publicly embarrass you into paying.
- Advertise your debt for sale
- Call or engage you in a phone conversation repeatedly to annoy, abuse or harass you
- Contact you at inconvenient times: i.e. before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m. or at work when it could affect your employment
- Call you without disclosing their identity
Debt collectors are never allowed to mislead you or claim to have the authority to hurt you in any way, shape or form. They also cannot imply that they are attorneys or that any communications from them are from an attorney. If your debt collector is threatening you with jail time because you haven't paid your debts, they are breaking the law.
What to Do When a Debt Collector Is Harassing You
For starters, if they're using profanity, threatening you or being particularly nasty, hang up the phone. Don't subject yourself to that abuse.
Even if they aren't cursing or acting overtly disrespectful, a debt collector may still be crossing the line, particularly if they're making veiled threats about seizing your assets, garnishing your wages or letting others know about your debts. In such instances, one of the best things you can do is to document everything and keep good records of all communications with the debt collector and collection agency.
If a debt collector is repeatedly calling you over a debt that you can't pay or refuse to pay for some reason — perhaps you dispute the debt — then you should send a cease and desist letter, which essentially puts the debt collector on notice that they are no longer legally allowed to contact you.
If you think the debt collector has violated the law, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission, the entity in charge of enforcing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FTC watches for patterns of abuse among debt collectors.
As a consumer, you have to stand up for yourself when dealing with debt collectors. Yes, you may owe money, but that doesn't give them the right to harass or treat you unfairly.
Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach®, is a personal finance expert, television and radio personality, and a regular contributor to AARP. You can follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.
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