What Can You Do About Debt Collection Calls?

A couple of years ago, after my wife and I moved into our new home, we began receiving phone calls and letters from a group called “Enhanced Recovery Company” insisting that we pay a debt we allegedly owed to AT&T U-verse. Not only did we not owe any such debt, but we’d actually been issued a refund by AT&T.  I wrote a letter to Enhanced Recovery detailing our transactions with AT&T. I provided a copy of our final statement showing a zero balance. I asked them to simply check with AT&T about the status. None of this put a stop to the “collection” efforts, and soon we found a notation on my wife’s credit report.

We found ourselves in a situation like that faced by many Americans today – when faced with a giant, un-feeling, unresponsive company, what’s an average person to do?

Fortunately, Americans have an important tool to fight back. The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act was passed by Congress in 1977 and is perhaps needed now more than ever, as debt collection has become a business.  The Act is fairly short – consisting of only seventeen sections – but lays out a number of ground rules and restrictions for those who regularly collect debts owed to others. The Act provides protections to consumers whether the consumer truly owes the debt or not. The FDCPA prevents abusive debt collection practices (not all debt collection practices) and does so in four main ways.

First, the Act keeps debt collectors from bullying you into paying a debt by attempting to publicly humiliate you.  Debt collectors may not send you debt collection notices in the form of postcards or other means that would let others know that you are being contacted about a delinquent debt. Additionally, a debt collector may not contact any other person about you or your debt, except to attempt to acquire information about your address or location. In calling these persons, the debt collector may not tell them that you owe a debt and, in general, may communicate with that person only once.

Second, the Act prevents debt collectors from threatening or harassing you.  The Act makes plain that a debt collector may not threaten to do anything that is not legal. While this sounds like an obvious point, this prohibition bars debt collectors not only from obvious illegal actions, but also from threatening to take steps such as garnishing Social Security benefits or wages, where such actions are not legal (as in South Carolina). Debt collectors are also restricted in how they contact you. The collector may not contact you at any unusual time or place and may not call before 8:00 AM or after 9:00 PM.

Third, the Act allows a consumer to gather more information about the debt.  Within five days after the first communication with the consumer, the debt collector must send a written notice stating, among other things, the amount of the debt and the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed. The latter is often not useful, given the way debts are passed around these days. However, you may respond to the written notice within thirty days and request the name and address of the original creditor.

If you have any doubt about the validity of the debt, be sure to send such a letter and to include in the letter the statement that you dispute the validity of the debt.  Finally, the best feature of the FDCPA is that it allows you to stop the debt collector from contacting you. If you notify the debt collector in writing that you either refuse to pay the debt or simply wish the debt collector to stop communicating with you, then the debt collector must leave you alone, except to notify you that it will stop calling or that it may seek some specific remedy.

If the debt collector fails to follow any of the above requirements, then the Act provides for civil liability, including actual damages, a small fine, and attorney’s fees. In my own case, I finally managed to get through to AT&T, which informed its collection agency that the debt was not valid. However, don’t count on this sort of solution. Be sure to communicate with the debt collector in writing, as required by the statute, and to save copies in case you find yourself needing to file a lawsuit or file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which polices debt collection in the United States.