Contacted By a Debt Collector? Proceed with Caution
Consumers who fall behind on credit card payments or other bills sometimes hear from a debt collector. But people who don't even owe any money may find themselves contacted by a debt collector…or someone who falsely claims to be one. Here are key points to know.
If a third-party collector (not your original lender) contacts you about a debt you owe, federal law requires you to be treated fairly and without harassment. For instance, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says that debt collectors can't call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. And, if you tell the debt collector in writing to stop contacting you, the collector may only make limited contact after that.
If you are contacted about a debt owed by a deceased relative, be careful. "Collectors may tell the family that they are responsible for the debt of the deceased, even when they have no such legal obligation," explained Evelyn Manley, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist. "During this difficult time, the concern is that family members may pay money they do not owe, in response to inappropriate pressure."
Be aware that con artists sometimes pose as debt collectors. They may even claim to be from the government, including law enforcement, when attempting to collect on a non-existent debt. Warning signs include a caller who is unwilling to provide written proof of a debt (the amount of the debt and the name of the creditor you owe), who won't provide a mailing address, or who threatens jail or violence.
To learn more about debt collectors and your consumer rights (for example, the law also prohibits a collector from discussing your debt with your employer) or to report a problem (including someone pretending to be a collector), contact your state Attorney General's office (start at www.naag.org/current-attorneys-general.php) or the Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/dealing-debt or 1-877-FTC-HELP). For advice on getting out of debt, including tips on choosing a reputable credit counselor, visit that same FTC Web site.
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has educational resources on dealing with debt collectors, and in the future it will accept complaints against certain ones (go to www.consumerfinance.gov or call 1-855-411-2372).