Beware of Dirty Debt Collection Practices

Americans report being harrassed and threatened by collections agents.

Nov. 1, 2008 — -- In tough economic times, millions of Americans are in debt. Some of them have been contacted by collections agencies.

Many of those interactions have been far less than pleasant for the consumer and, sometimes, they're even illegal.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumer complaints about debt collectors are on the rise. Americans have reported being harassed, threatened and even coerced into paying debts that are not their own.

Collections agents often do not work directly for the company to which the consumer owes money. Rather, they are outside professionals with a single goal: collect the outstanding debt.

Buffalo news reporter Fred Williams spent three months working undercover as a collector to see what some collectors are trained to do, and found that some of the tactics were dishonest or illegal.

According to Williams, he was taught to use "implied threats, misrepresentation, pretending to be someone you're not [and] pretending to be law enforcement."

"People would misrepresent themselves, claim to be connected with a law firm or even imply that they were with law enforcement," he said.

Williams added that what bothered him the most was a perfectly legal collection strategy.

"We were coached to tell them to take money out of their IRA, which is very expensive," he said, "or even skip a mortgage payment and use that money to pay their debt to us. ... It was perfectly legal to give people really bad financial advice.

"They treat everyone like deadbeats," Williams said. "I'm going to assume you're lying and try to get the money because that's my job."

Heather Thomas claims she was a victim of such intimidation tactics.

Thomas answered her ringing doorbell one day to find her neighbor in tears. The neighbor told her that a debt collector had just called and claimed that the police were coming to arrest Thomas.

"She just wanted to let me know that they were on their way," Thomas told "Good Morning America." "Right after that, the phones started ringing and it was a debt collector."

Thomas did not know it is illegal for debt collectors to tell anyone -- including neighbors -- about someone's debt.

In a voice mail, the debt collector said that she should call back by 5:00 p.m. or they would call "the detectives."

"I panicked," Thomas said. "I started crying. I didn't know what to do."

Terrified, Thomas searched the Internet for a lawyer and found Jerry Jarzombek.

At Jarzombek's request, Thomas started recording the calls. In one, the debt collector said Thomas had broken the law and that they could take her to court.

"Right now, we have the ability to file charges against you with the evidence that we have," the collector said. "You did, you did break the law, whether you admit it or not."

"It's one of the worst I've seen," Jarzombek told "Good Morning America." "You cannot be arrested for non-payment of a consumer debt."

It is also illegal for collectors to threaten jail time.

"They are trained to manipulate you into being scared," she said, "so afraid that you'll do anything. It was all a lie. It was all just to scare me. Intimidate me."

According to the ACA International, the association that represents debt collectors, good collectors denounce unethical practices and treat consumers with dignity and respect while educating them about their rights and responsibilities.

But not all agencies are "good collectors." According to "Good Morning America" consumer correspondent Elisabeth Leamy, there are several other rules that debt collectors have reportedly broken.

They are not allowed to call before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m.

They must mail you a letter giving the details of your debt within five days of calling.

It is illegal for collectors to threaten anyone with violence.

Regardless of their tactics, however, Leamy said there is a simple way to get the calls to stop all together.

"All you have to do is ask for the name and address of their company," she said. "Then write a letter saying, 'Do not call me anymore,' and send it certified mail. By law, they must obey your wishes. The debt does not go away, but the harassment does."