Federal law sets clear limits on what debt collectors can do. If their tactics go beyond those limits, you can win money -- and it's a surprisingly easy process.
By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
If you're overdue on your bills, you may know all too well the headaches of phone calls, letters and threats from creditors.
Now some debtors are hitting back by suing when debt collectors violate their rights.
"People will take a lot of crap until it gets to the point where they're so desperate they feel they have nothing to lose by fighting back," said Steven Katz of Tucson, Ariz. Katz is the founder of Debtorboards, where consumers post their frustrations and successes with the collection industry.
Suing is a surprisingly easy process. Federal law lets individuals receive $1,000 for each abuse of their rights, plus any damages or attorney fees. Sometimes, a single phone call from a collector involves multiple violations.
"The violations they commit are spread all over the board," said Katz, who has reaped $38,000 by suing debt collectors in small-claims court. In a time when jobs are scarce and cash is tight, he believes collectors are becoming more aggressive with consumers and often crossing the line into illegal threats and deception.
Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission hears more complaints about debt collection than any other industry the agency regulates. In 2009, the FTC received 119,549 complaints about debt collection, regarding both original creditors and third-party collectors, up 14% from the previous year.
In a fall 2009 national poll of 1,001 adults, more than 30% of respondents answered yes when asked whether they'd received debt collection calls at inappropriate times of the day, in such frequency as to seem harassing or regarding a bill they didn't believe they owed. Forty-seven percent said letters and calls from debt collection agencies seem to be more common than in the past, according to the survey, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service in partnership with Ohio University.
When can you sue?
The first step in turning the tables on debt collectors is to know your rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits such tactics as:
- Harassment. Using obscene or profane language or making multiple calls in a short period of time.
- Illegal threats. Saying you'll be arrested or sued, if the debt collector lacks the intention or ability to follow through. Threatening to garnish wages, if such a practice is illegal in your state.
- Inappropriate contact. Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., or calling you at work after you've told them you can't receive calls there. Contacting your relatives or neighbors about your debt for any reason other than to locate you.
- Lying. Misrepresenting the amount you owe or the legal status of forms sent to you. Debt collectors falsely portraying themselves as attorneys or government officials, or claiming incorrectly that you committed a crime.
- Unfair practices. Giving false credit information about you or trying to collect any additional charges that aren't allowed under state law and the contract that initially created your debt. Making your debt appear more recent than it truly is.
Carrie Lengyel, a 45-year-old warehouse worker in Butler, Pa., knew the collection agent was lying when he left a voice mail saying he'd be stopping by her workplace and would need her manager to be available. At the time of the call, she'd been unemployed for a year and didn't have a place of employment for him to visit.
"It made me mad because I knew he wasn't allowed to say what he was saying," Lengyel said. "I never dreamed that you could actually sue them for coming back at you the way they do."
Two weeks after providing Pittsburgh attorney Clayton Morrow a copy of the recording the collector left her, Lengyel received a settlement for $1,000 -- twice her original debt -- and a promise to cease contact. She was happy that Morrow received $1,500 in the settlement, since he took her case on contingency.
Continued: Building your case