Q: Is there any law that addresses harassing phone calls from bill collectors?
A: Yes. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects you from unfair collection acts, including harassing calls and calls outside of normal business hours.
Q: If bill collectors harass me, can I stop paying my debt?
A: No. The federal “fair debt collection” law does not give you the right to avoid your debts. The law only gives you the right to complain if a debt collector does not correctly handle bills, payments, or credit issues. If you owe the money, you still owe the money, but that does not mean that a bill collector (also called a debt collector) can call you at all hours or harass you. You have the right to be treated fairly.
Q: Does the FDCPA apply to all debts?
A: No. The FDCPA applies only to personal and family and household debts. This includes things like a car loan and charge accounts. It does not apply to debt owed by one business to another business.
Q: What, exactly, does the law prohibit bill collectors from doing?
A: Bill collectors may not harass or abuse you, or do anything that is unfair or deceptive when they are collecting debts. Under the FDCPA, a bill collector is any person other than the original creditor (the business that you owe money to) who regularly collects debts that are owed to other people.
Q: How can I stop bill collectors from calling me late at night?
A: If a bill collector calls you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., you can write a letter telling the bill collector to stop. You should send the letter by certified mail and keep a copy. Once your letter has been received, the bill collector must stop calling you outside the legal hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. The bill collector can, however, continue to call you between those hours.
The law protects you from harassment, but generally only paying your debt or hiring an attorney will provide adequate incentive for the debt collector to stop contacting you. Since you may have to prove harassment in court, you should make notes of the exact dates and times of harassing calls and what the debt collector says. You can also let the caller leave a message on your answering machine to prove the harassment.
Q: Can a bill collector call me at work?
A: Yes. However, if your employer does not approve of bill collectors contacting you at work, tell the bill collector you are not allowed to receive bill collection calls at work. You can give your message by phone, but it is wise to also send the collector a certified letter and keep a copy. Once you have communicated this message, the bill collector must stop calling you at work.
Q: Can a bill collector pretend to be someone else when calling?
A: No. The law requires a bill collector to identify himself or herself as a bill collector and provide his or her name.
Q: If I complain about harassment, might the original creditor just hire a different bill collector to harass me?
A: Sometimes the bill collector “buys” your debt from the original creditor, but if the original creditor still owns your debt, the creditor can hire another bill collector. Also, the bill collector can assign your case to a different collector.
Q: Can bill collectors threaten to put me in jail?
A: No. It is illegal for a bill collector to lie when trying to collect debts, such as by claiming that it is a crime (an offense carrying a possible jail term) to avoid paying your bills. The bill collector can, however, file a collection case in court and get a judgment for the debt you owe. That can lead to a wage garnishment order, allowing an amount to be deducted from your paycheck over time until your debt is paid.
Q: How can I enforce my rights against debt collection harassment?
A: Like most credit rights laws, the FDCPA puts you in charge of enforcement. If the law is violated, you can complain to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency that enforces the FDCPA. Contact the FTC at www.ftc.gov or 877-382-4357, or contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov or 614-466-4320.
You may also wish to consult an attorney for help. Most lawyers who handle bill collector harassment cases do so on a contingent or fee-shifting basis, which means that you pay the lawyer only if the lawsuit is successful. Also, if you win a debt collection lawsuit, you have the right to make the bill collector pay your attorney fees.
Q: Where can I get more information about my credit rights?
A: You can visit the Federal Reserve Board’s website at www.federalreserve.gov or the FTC’s website at www.ftc.gov.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Dayton attorney Ronald L Burdge of Burdge Law Office Co., LPA.