When you are experiencing a financial crisis and you are unable to pay your bills, debt collectors often make the stress, frustration and anxiety much worse. Threatening and harassing letters, as well as non-stop telephone calls, increase the stress of not having enough money to pay your bills. However, debt collectors love to use these tactics to intimidate individuals into paying debts that they cannot afford to pay. In many cases, in order to get the debt collector to stop calling, individuals will go into further debt or sell assets to make a partial payment.
Unfortunately, debt collectors use these tactics to get whatever money they can from the individual with the promise of "working with the individual" on the remaining balance. However, the debt collector simply begins harassing the individual the next week (sometimes the next day) for the remaining balance. While debt collectors do have the right to contact individuals in an attempt to collect a valid debt, individuals are protected by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) against unfair trade practices and creditor harassment.
The FDCPA is designed to protect consumers from creditor harassment by prohibiting debt collectors from taking certain actions to collect a debt. The law limits the actions of debt collectors to prevent a debt collector from harassing, threatening or using unfair practices to abuse or frighten an individual. There are horror stories of debt collectors coming to the homes of individuals and taking pictures of their home, their cars and even their children playing in the yard. Banging on the door and yelling at the consumer is exactly the type of action that the FDCPA is designed to prevent.
What Actions Are Prohibited by the FDCPA?
Creditor harassment is a serious problem that affects many consumers in the United States each day. Congress enacted the FDCPA to protect consumers from debt collectors' abuse by prohibiting debt collectors from taking the following actions in their attempts to collect a debt:
- Abuse and harassment. Debt collectors are not permitted to harass or abuse consumers in their attempts to collect a debt. The debt collector cannot threaten violence or harm; publish the names of individuals who are unable to pay their bills; use obscene language or profanity; or use the telephone to annoy/harass the individual with repeated telephone calls.
- Give false statements. A debt collector may not tell a lie in order to collect a debt. For example, a debt collector cannot tell a consumer that they have committed a crime by not paying the debt. Another example would be a debt collector telling a consumer that they are an attorney or government representative when they are not. Debt collectors must be honest in all communications with consumers.
- Unfair trade practices. Examples of unfair trade practices include contacting an individual by postcard; trying to collect interest or fees that are not provided for in the original contract; depositing a post-dated check early; and withdrawing funds from an individual’s account without permission.
- Contact times. To protect consumers, debt collectors are prohibited from contacting consumers during specific times of the day. Debt collectors must not call a consumer before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless the consumer gives the debt collector permission to do so. The debt collector must not contact an individual at work when the debt collector is informed that the individual is not permitted to receive personal calls at their place of employment.
- Other actions that are prohibited by the FDCPA. There are other provisions under the FDCPA that are designed to protect consumers from debt collectors. For example, a debt collector cannot tell a consumer that they will be arrested if the debt is not paid. They may not tell the person that their property will be seized or that wages will be garnished, unless the law permits that action and the debt collector intends to take that action to collect the debt. Debt collectors may not report false information to a credit reporting agency, nor send any communication to the consumer that resembles or is designed to look like an official document from a court or government agency.
Steps You Can Take to Stop Creditor Harassment
If you are the victim of creditor harassment, there are steps that you can take to stop it:
1. File a complaint. You can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Protection Bureau or your state’s Attorney General’s office. This does not release your liability for the debt; however, the agency should investigate the harassment.
2. Send a written letter. Send a written letter by certified mail (return receipt requested) to the debt collector, disputing the debt and demanding proof of the alleged debt. The debt collector can only contact you under two circumstances after they receive your letter: the debt collector can contact you to tell you that they will not contact you again, or to inform you that they or the creditor will be pursuing legal action. Again, this does not absolve you of the legal liability to repay a valid debt.
3. File a lawsuit. Contact an attorney to file a lawsuit under the FDCPA. You have one year from the date of the violation to file a lawsuit under the Act.
4. File for bankruptcy. You may be eligible to file a bankruptcy case. Upon the filing of the bankruptcy case, creditors and debt collectors are prohibited from contacting you to collect this debt. Upon completion of the bankruptcy, the debt will be discharged and the creditor may not contact you any further regarding this debt.
Creditor harassment is serious. You have legal rights to protect you against threats, harassment and abusive tactics by debt collectors. If you are the victim of creditor harassment, you should contact an attorney to discuss your legal options.