1 in 4 Americans Feel Threatened When Contacted by a Debt Collector, Survey Says

A new survey found that more than a quarter of consumers who've interacted with debt collectors said they felt threatened by a debt collector.

More than a quarter (27%) of consumers who’ve interacted with debt collectors said they felt threatened by the most recent creditor or collector who contacted them, according to a new survey from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).

That may not sound surprising, given debt collectors don’t have a reputation for being friendly, but it’s a noteworthy discovery. It’s illegal for debt collectors to harass or verbally abuse consumers.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector cannot “harass, oppress or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.” That includes things like threatening to hurt or arrest you, using obscene or profane language or using repeated phone calls to annoy you. They’re also not allowed to lie to consumers. The CFPB’s survey results indicate those rules often aren’t being followed.

A bit more on that data: It’s based on survey responses from 2,132 consumers the bureau contacted between December 2014 and March 2015. Of those respondents, 32% (682 people) said they had been contacted by a creditor or debt collector about paying a debt within the last year. The results are weighed to represent “the broader population of consumers with credit records.”

It’s worth noting that consumers saying they felt threatened doesn’t mean the collector they talked to broke the law. Still, 27% is a high occurrence rate of potentially illegal behavior. Additionally, reports of threatening debt collectors wasn’t the only issue raised by survey respondents: About 40% of consumers who’d been contacted about debts in collection said they asked a collector or creditor to stop contacting them and, of those consumers, about 75% said the collector continued to contact them anyway. Legally, a debt collector must stop contacting a consumer if that consumer sent a written request to the collector to stop communicating with them, with a few exceptions.

If you ever find yourself dealing with a debt collector, it’s a good idea to take the time to familiarize yourself with your rights and the rules debt collectors have to follow when contacting you. You can report any issues you encounter to your state’s attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission or the CFPB, and you’ll want to keep an eye on your credit reports and scores to see how the collection account affects you. (You can get a free summary of your credit report, with updates every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

Image: Christopher Futcher

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Who Can a Debt Collector Call to Track You Down?

people-a-debt-collector-can-call

Can a debt collector contact family, friends, or co-workers in an attempt to find you?

Yes, yes, and yes. But she or he can’t say very much.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act offers consumers a wide set of protections about how collectors can go about their business. But it doesn’t prevent them from contacting whoever they want while looking for you.

There are very strict rules about what they can say, however. The law says collectors can only ask about a debtor’s “location information,” meaning their “place of abode and … telephone number at such place, or … place of employment.”

What Can a Collector Say? 

Critically, collectors are not allowed to share any information about the debt with these third parties. Collectors do have to identify their employer if asked, which probably tips off neighbors or relatives that the debtor has money trouble. But otherwise, collectors cannot reveal anything about the debt. Generally, they can’t even leave voicemails requesting callbacks.

The law also only gives collectors one bite of that apple. They can’t call friends, neighbors or co-workers more than once, unless they have some reason to believe there is new information to be gleaned.

Here’s what the law says:

“(A collector can not) communicate with any such person more than once unless requested to do so by such person or unless the debt collector reasonably believes that the earlier response of such person is erroneous or incomplete and that such person now has correct or complete location information.”

A bunch of other rules further limit who debt collectors can contact and how. If a collector knows a debtor can’t take personal calls at work, the collector can’t call their workplace, for example.

And most importantly, once a debtor tells a collector to stop calling third parties, or stop calling the office, those calls must stop. Their only legitimate reason to contact a third party is if collectors have no way to contact the debtor, so a request to stop third parties eliminates the grounds for contacting them.

Also, if a debtor is being represented by an attorney, the collector must contact that attorney instead of the debtor or any third party.

While the law is pretty clear on what is and isn’t permitted, there are ample opportunities for abuse. Collectors who reach family members or friends may hint — or directly express — threats aimed at the debtor. They may even request or demand payment. Those activities are illegal, but it’s easy to see how they can happen.

“If you don’t want your friend to get in serious trouble with the law, make sure you deliver this message,” for example.

A Different Kind of Block Party 

Collectors who repeatedly use these tactics with multiple neighbors are conducting what’s known as a “block party.” It’s illegal, and victims can sue collectors for sizable damages when a block party is conducted. A similar tactic, when used to call a debtor’s workplace, is sometimes called an “office party.” That’s also illegal.

Third parties who believe they have been harassed – if stop contact requests aren’t honored, or if they are contacted at inconvenient times – can potentially have their own cause of action against collectors, in addition to potential legal action by the debtor.

The Federal Trade Commission makes the full text of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act available in brochure form on its website.

Remember, a debt collection account can damage your credit. You can see how any of these accounts may be affecting your credit score by viewing your free credit report summary, updated each month, on Credit.com.

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Image: Halfpoint

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