Know Your Rights When Dealing With Debt Collectors
A debt collector calls you every day, sometimes multiple times in the same day. He leaves you threatening messages at home, and tries to contact you at work. His messages threaten legal action if you don't make an immediate payment on the debt. The worst part? You don't even recognize the debt that the collector is trying to collect. What can you do to take control of the situation, find out if the debt is real, and prevent further harassment by the debt collector?
If you want to resolve the situation, you need to know your rights as well as the limitations placed on the debt collection companies by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC.) The FTC is the government agency in charge of enforcing the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or FDCPA. Never heard of the FDCPA? You are not alone and every year, thousands of Americans are taken advantage of or treated unfairly because they don't understand their rights under the FDCPA.
The first step you need to take is to determine if the debt is valid or not. You have the right to demand the collector send you a written "validation notice" within five days of your first contact with them. The notice must tell you how much money is owed on the debt, the name of the original creditor, and what steps you can take to correct the problem if you don't believe that the debt is valid. If you don't believe that the debt is valid, you have thirty days to respond in writing to the debt collector. You should explain why you don't believe the debt collector’s information is correct and you can request that the collector stop contacting you. You should make the request in writing and send it return receipt requested so you have proof that they have received it. However, the debt collector can continue to contact you if they are sending verification of the debt, such as a copy of the bill. Be sure to talk with the collector at least once so that you can get as many facts about the debt as possible.
You should be aware of a debt's statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is the time that must pass before a debt collector can no longer take legal action against you. Although the collector can’t take you to court over the old debt, be aware that not paying a legitimate debt could have a negative impact on your credit rating. Laws vary by state on the time frame that the statute of limitations begins, depending on the type of debt. You can check on your state’s Attorney Generals website for information pertaining to your state or seek legal advice regarding your debt. Worth noting is that student loans, taxes and child support do not have a statute of limitations.
You should also know that most state laws reset the clock if you make even a partial payment on an old debt. Some states also reset the clock if you even acknowledge the debt. That means the statute of limitations starts all over again and the collector can sue you for the debt.
The second thing you need to do is to take control of the debt collector's communication with you. The collector must follow certain guidelines when communicating with you. For instance:
- The debt collector can't attempt to contact you at work if they are told that you are not allowed to accept calls at work.
- The debt collector may not discuss your debt with other third parties. However, they do have the right to contact others in trying to determine your home address, phone number and place of employment.
- If you have an attorney representing you, the debt collector must communicate with you through your attorney and may not contact you directly.
- Debt collectors can only contact you between the hours of 8 AM and 9 PM.
- You can request that the debt collector only contact you in writing or not contact you at all. Send your letter return receipt requested so you have proof that they have received it. If you only want them to contact you in writing, then you need to respond in writing as well.
- Be sure to keep a record of the communication that you have with the debt collector. If you find yourself in court, having good records of conversations and copies of letters, receipts, etc. will be very helpful.
Your third area of action is to understand what the debt collector may and may not do. The FDCPA tightly controls the activities of the debt collection industry, and gives you options to report abuse and to seek recourse when a debt collector breaks the law.
- Debt collectors may not engage in harassing, oppressive, or abusive behavior. For instance, the collector can’t use profane or obscene language. The collector can’t make threats of violence or physical harm.
- The debt collector may not make false statements. This means that they must not lie by falsely telling you that you have committed a crime or that they are attorneys when they are not.
- Debt collectors may not use unfair practices. For instance, they may not deposit a postdated check early. They may not take or threaten to take your property without doing so in a legal process.
Lastly, your fourth priority is to understand what the debt collector can do. Debt collection is a legitimate business, and collectors do have the right to collect on your debts. You are obligated to pay your personal debts.
Debt collectors can go to court to seek legal action against you. This can lead to a judgment, garnishment of your wages or of your bank account. Keep in mind, that if you are a joint owner on a bank account, 100% of the money in that account is subject to garnishment. Be sure to respond to any legal actions taken against you. Obtain the aid of an attorney if necessary. The only way to have a voice in court is if you show up. Make sure you have with you all of your receipts and written and verbal correspondence with the creditor to present to the court.
If you believe that a debt collector is breaking the law, you should report them to the FTC at www.ftc.gov and to your state’s Attorney General’s office. You also have the right to sue the debt collector when they have broken the law. You can win damages that you have suffered. Just remember that even if the collector breaks the law in trying to collect on a debt, the debt does not go away. Ultimately, you still need to pay a valid debt.
For more information about your rights in dealing with a debt collector, visit the FTC at www.ftc.gov/credit or by calling toll free, 1-877-FTC-HELP.
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