Debtors' Prison: Escape Collectors' Calls

In a tough economy, more people are likely to be hearing from debt collectors. But guess what? With one simple step, you have the power to make them stop calling. If you're in debt, it's probably your own fault and it's definitely your responsibility. But you don't have to take abuse. Debtors' prisons don't exist anymore, but debtors' rights do.

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Collection agents make commissions that range from 15 to 50 percent of what you owe. I once asked a couple of them to share their brand of psychological warfare.

Collectors know an awful lot about you, but they don't even use their real names. They use fake names just in case they ever encounter a case of debtor's rage. To get you on the phone, they alternate between using your first name and your last name.

Here's another trick: Collectors will pretend they're putting you on hold to plead your case to a manager. They act like they're on your side. Instead, they doodle or go get some more coffee.

Despite creative tactics like this, federal law requires collection agents to treat you fairly. They're not allowed to call you before eight in the morning or after nine at night. If they know your employer discourages personal calls, they are not supposed to call you at work.

One call a day is the accepted industry standard. After a collection company calls you, it has five days to mail you a notice stating who you owe, how much you owe and what to do if you dispute the debt.

Collectors are not allowed to embarrass you publicly or discuss your debt with anybody else. They can call other people only to find out where you are.

Collection agents are not allowed to pretend that they're with the cops or the courts. They can't imply that you've committed a crime or threaten to arrest you. And they can get into serious trouble if they use foul language or threaten violence.

Collection agents are not allowed to collect more than you owe. If you write a post-dated check they can't cash it early.

If you want a collector to stop calling, ask him for his name and address, which, by law, he must provide. Then send a certified letter demanding that the collector stop calling you. After that, the collection company can only notify you by mail of specific actions it plans to take against you, like lawsuits.

It's as simple as that. The debt doesn't go away, but the calls do.

If you believe you do not owe the money, you should write the collection agent a letter within 30 days. The collector is not allowed to contact you again until your debt is verified and the documentation has been forwarded to you.

Often, collection agents are willing to negotiate. After all, if you don't pay, they don't get paid. Say you owe $300, but you only have $200. If you offer to forward it right away, the collector may agree to call it even.

If your credit record is in terrible shape anyway, cutting a deal like this won't make it much worse. If in doubt, contact a reputable counseling service like Consumer Credit Counseling.

Do your homework:

1. If a collection agent calls you, remain calm and get his or her name, the collection company's name, the name of the merchant they're collecting for and the amount.

2. If you don't want a collection agent to call you anymore, ask for the company's address. Send a certified letter asking the company to stop contacting you.

3. If you are deep in debt, consider negotiating with the collectors who call. They may be willing to accept a smaller amount than you actually owe or waive late fees and fines.

4. If a collector is overly aggressive or abusive on the phone, alert him or her that you are aware of your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Just the fact that you know the name of the law should shut them up!

How to complain:

If you believe a collection agent is harassing you or violating the law, you have the right to sue in a state or federal court within one year of the violation. If you simply want to file a complaint, contact your state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission.

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