By Catherine Blinder
The phone rings at all hours. There are threats and accusations that are sometimes frightening, especially to seniors.
In spite of all good intentions, and the best planning, sometimes we find ourselves unable to pay bills in a timely manner and consequently are hounded by debt collectors. The best thing to do, if you find yourself unable to pay bills on time, is to call the utility, hospital, credit card company or store and try to work out a payment plan that you can afford. Most will be happy that you are not ignoring them and work with you to pay down your debt. It’s important that once you enter into an agreement, you honor your payment commitment – so be reasonable when you agree to a monthly amount. If all you can afford is $50.00 a month, let them know; most creditors would rather work with you to lower the debt than turn your account over to debt collectors.
Debt collectors must send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much money you owe within five (5) days after they first contact you. The notice must also include the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money, and how to proceed if you don’t think you owe the money.
Be aware that some people who identify themselves as debt collectors may be scam artists who are attempting to collect money that you do not owe, and they tend to prey on seniors and people who are unfamiliar with their rights. If you believe that you do not owe the debt, send a letter stating you don’t owe any or all of the money, and ask for verification. By law, they must stop contacting you at that point. You must send that letter within 30 days after you receive the “validation notice.”
If you find that your account has been turned over to a debt collector, you do have rights, and they have rules they must follow. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) clearly outlines what they can and cannot do in order to collect money owed their clients. The FDCPA does not cover debts you incur running a business.
They cannot, for instance:
- Call you before 8:00 am and after 9:00 pm
- Call you at work if they are told, orally or in writing, that you are not allowed personal calls.
- Discuss your debt with anyone other than you.
- Use threats of violence or harm, abusive language, obscene or profane language or repeatedly use the phone to annoy you.
- Claim to be lawyers or government representatives.
- Claim that you have committed a crime.
- Misrepresent the amount you owe.
- Indicate that papers they send are legal documents if they are not, or indicate papers are not legal documents if they are.
- Tell you that you will be arrested.
- Tell you they will seize, garnish, attach or sell your property unless they are permitted to by law.
If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you, please respond. No good comes from ignoring legitimate debt collection. If you can afford a lawyer, it would be wise to get one. Make sure you respond by the date specified in the court papers in order to preserve your rights.
If you feel a debt collector has violated any of the rules of conduct, report them to the Attorney General’s Office (http://www.ct.gov/ag/lib/ag/consumers/consumercomplaintform.pdf).
Remember, it’s best to take the calls when you find yourself behind on bills and try to work out a payment plan, but if it ends up in the hands of a debt collector, reply to the first call or letter and work out a plan with them. It is a still a business transaction, however, that requires them to treat you with respect and follow the rules.
This article was written by Catherine Blinder, chief education and outreach officer of the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.