Aside from the damage it can cause to your credit, one of the worst consequences of leaving a bill unpaid is the being hounded by a debt collector. While some creditors use an in-house agent to track down outstanding accounts, others will sell the debt for pennies on the dollar to a debt collection agency. Once this happens, you may be subject to a flurry of phone calls and letters, all demanding that you pay up. Fortunately, federal law protects consumers from harassing or harmful behavior. If you’ve been subject to collection actions, it’s vital that you understand your rights.
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Rules of Contact
What is a debt collector? A debt collector is someone who works for a private company that buys debt and then pursues debtors, seeking payment on those debts. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) spells out exactly when a debt collector can contact you. You can’t be subjected to phone calls at any unusual times, which generally means any time before 8:00 am or after 9:00 pm. You also can’t be contacted at any location that’s inconvenient for you or at your job if your employer frowns on personal phone calls.
You also have the right to request in writing that a debt collector stop contacting you altogether. Once you do so, the collection agent isn’t allowed to contact you at all unless it’s to let you know that they’re no longer pursuing the debt or that specific action, such as a lawsuit, is being taken against you. Debt collectors also aren’t allowed to contact your friends, family members or employer regarding your account.
Validating a Debt
When a debt collector contacts you for the first time, they’re required to provide you with certain information about the account in question. This includes the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor and instructions on how to go about disputing the validity of the debt.
Generally, you have 30 days from the time you receive the first collection notice to initiate a dispute. Requests for validation have to be submitted in writing and the debt collector is required to provide you with proof of the debt. For example, they may send you a copy of your original cardholder agreement or a promissory note you signed when the debt was incurred.
Protection Against Harassment
Federal law prohibits debt collectors from engaging in behavior that’s considered abusive or harassing. This covers everything from making physical threats to threatening you with legal action without a specific intention to sue. Debt collectors aren’t allowed to use obscene language or verbally abuse you in any way and they can’t call you repeatedly.
In addition to harassment, collection agents are barred from misrepresenting themselves or providing misleading information. This applies to a wide range of activities, including falsifying documents, using false information to try to coerce you into making a payment and using deceptive means to gain access to your personal information.
The FDCPA also bans debt collectors from using unfair practices to try to get you to pay a debt. For instance, they can’t collect any interest, fees or other costs in excess of the outstanding debt balance unless it’s explicitly permitted by the original credit agreement or a court of law. If you write a postdated check, a debt collector can’t deposit the check early or use your payment as a means of initiating a civil or criminal action.
If Your Rights Are Violated
If you believe your rights have been violated in any way, you do have legal recourse. In cases where a violation is intentional, you can sue the collection agency for any actual damages caused by their illegal actions. The judge may also choose to award up to $1,000 in punitive damages as well as your court costs and attorney’s fees. Keeping detailed records of all your communications with a debt collector is the best way to defend yourself if you end up in court.
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