Even a polite call from a debt collector could ruin your day --
but imagine if a collector called you names, swore at you, stalked you on
Facebook or even threatened to kill your dog.
Bad behavior by debt collectors is on the rise: in 2011, the
Federal Trade Commission received more than 180,000 consumer complaints regarding
abusive debt collection practices, almost 40,000 more than the previous year.
"It was an unprecedented number," says Thomas Pahl, assistant director of the
division of financial practices for the FTC. And in 2012 so far, Pahl says:
"Consumer complaint numbers continue to be very high."
The increase probably results from the bad economy combined
with the Federal Trade Commission's stepped-up enforcement of debt
collection practices, Pahl says. For example, in 2011, the agency filed a
lawsuit against a California debt collector, hired by a funeral home, who
threatened to dig up the body of the debtor's daughter -- and also to shoot her
dog. "The FTC has been more active in bringing cases, so there's more awareness
that people can complain to us," Pahl says.
However, a growing number of consumer complaints does not
mean that bad behavior is rampant in the industry, says Mark Schiffman, vice president
of public affairs for ACA International, a debt collector trade association that trains its members to comply with debt
collection laws. "It's really only a tally of complaints to the FTC,"
Schiffman says. "Someone might say 'Joe's Collection Agency called me at noon
on a Tuesday and I didn't like it.' That's a complaint, but [the debt
collector] didn't do anything wrong."
While it's true many complaints are fairly routine -- for example,
allegations of a collector calling too much or being rude -- some collectors do
resort to extreme tactics. "Most of the industry
understands that abusive behavior works," says Ira Rheingold, executive
director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. "There's a real pressure on
and incentive for people working in those debt-collecting outfits to collect.
That's how their compensation works."
These true stories show just how
disturbing an encounter with a rogue debt collector can be -- and what a
consumer can do to fight back.
Tale No. 1: Terrorized by text
Jessica Burke had bought a used Pontiac Grand Am and fell a few months behind
on payments when she had trouble finding work after a move to California. She
called the financing company, and they agreed to give her extra time to pay.
The first call: The
very next day, she got a call from a man who called himself "John Anderson,"
which Burke later found out was a fake name. "He started out by telling me he
was a lawyer and would have me sued," says Burke, who found out that was a lie.
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The harassment: The bill collector got her
address and other private information by calling her cellphone company,
impersonating her father and asking to be added to her account. Then, he began
a barrage of angry calls and texts. The messages upset Burke so much she called
the police, who ordered the collector to stop contacting her. But the texts
continued for weeks, coming from a disguised number and implying that he was
watching her. In one, he called her "Porky Pig" and a "200-pound slob" and
added, "I got picture messages of you today." Late one night, she says, he
texted her, claiming he was outside her house. She says: "It was 11 o'clock at
night, I lived in a very rural area and I was home by myself. I was terrified."
Fighting back: Burke turned her car over to her
creditor, got an attorney and sued the debt collector for multiple violations
of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, including his lies,
name-calling, obscenity and repeated calls. "You can't go to jail for owing a
debt, but he made that threat a couple of times," says Jeremy Golden, the
attorney who represented Burke. "It was really outrageous." But Golden says one
of the worst things the debt collector did was pretend to be her dad. "When you
couple that with the insults -- that's a really scary pattern," Golden says.
The outcome: A
federal judge awarded Burke a judgment of $33,312 against the debt collector.
But he told her lawyer he did not plan to pay. Burke did some investigating of
her own and learned he was broke, so she gave up on trying to collect. She
later found online discussions about his tactics. She says: "A lot of people
had been getting the same types of phone calls -- he was telling them he'd take
their dog or have their grandmother arrested."
Tale No. 2: Get your gun
The debt: A
debt collector called West Virginia homemaker Diana Mey about an old debt,
possibly a credit card debt, allegedly owed by her son, who had moved out eight
The first call: The
debt collector left a message on Mey's home answering machine. "It was a very
ominous message that implied legal action," Mey says.
The harassment: The collectors continued to call,
threatening to put a lien on Mey's house and to sue her son. She sent a letter
telling the company to stop contacting her. Then she started getting hang-up
calls that showed up on her caller ID as coming from the local sheriff's
What to do when being
harassed by debt collectors
1. Know your rights. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act makes it illegal for third-party debt collectors -- those collecting a debt on behalf of someone else -- to harass, abuse and lie to consumers. For example, a debt collector can’t swear at you, threaten you with arrest or call your friends and tell them about the money you owe. (The Federal Trade Commission has more information, including a full list of what debt collectors can and can’t do.)
2. Contact the
collection agency. "I think you need to let the
company know first," says Mark Schiffman, a spokesman for ACA International, a trade group for debt collectors. "When given a chance to work with the consumer to
resolve an issue, we do very well," Schiffman says of the debt collection
industry as a whole. And, he adds, even some good debt collectors make
3. Keep good records. "Any consumer who is being harassed by a debt collector should keep a log," says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a nonprofit association of attorneys and consumer advocates. "If it gets really bad you may want to tape it," he says, noting that some states require consent of the other person in order to legally tape a call.
4. Check your mail. According to the FTC, a debt collector must send you a notice in writing within five days of their first contact with you. The notice should tell you the amount you owe, who the creditor is and what to do if you do not think you owe the money.
5. File complaints. Contact both your state attorney general and the FTC, Pahl says. If you complain to the FTC, the agency will put the complaint into a database to use as raw data -- but does not follow up on each complaint individually. “We [use them to] try to figure out which companies are worth targeting for investigation and prosecution,” he says.
6. Contact an attorney. Avoid debt settlement companies and instead contact an attorney, preferably one who is a member of the NACA, says Bob Hobbs, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center and author of the book, “Fair Debt Collection.” A local legal aid office also might be able to help, Rheingold says.
"I called the sheriff's department and
said, 'Is somebody trying to get ahold of me?' They said 'No.'" One evening, the phone rang again, from the same number.
The deep male voice on the other end asked for Diana, using a vulgar
slur. He then went on to make graphic threats of sexual assault. Horrified, Mey
told him she was recording the call. He responded: "Yay." After she hung up,
Mey called 911 to report the incident. Home alone, she got her husband's gun
and hung it on her bedpost that night. She says: "I was literally shaking I was
Fighting back: Later, Mey did some online
research and found other complaints about bill collectors from the same company
making obscene calls and disguising their phone number as that of the local
sheriff's department. Mey found an attorney and sued the company, Global AG,
also known by several other names, including Reliant Financial Associates. Her
attorney, Martin Sheehan, says Mey's case was bolstered by the recording of the
call. "When she came in with that tape recording, that was a game changer," he
says. "There was no question how vile it was."
The outcome: The collection company's
attorney didn't show up in court, so a judge listened to Mey's testimony and
the tape with a local TV station filming. The judge awarded Mey a judgment of
more than $10.8 million. "I was stunned," she says. "I never expected that
much." Now comes the hard part: trying to collect.
Tale No. 3: Followed on Facebook
The debt: In
Florida, Kathryn Haralson bought a used Jeep Grand Cherokee and made monthly
payments for more than five years until she fell behind in February 2011. She
thought she had only a few more payments left. However, the creditor, MarkOne
Financial, claimed she still owed $7,400.
The first call: A
bill collector who called himself "Mr. Rice" started making calls to Haralson
at home and at the radiology center where she worked, Haralson says.
The harassment: The bill collector called her
work number and asked a co-worker where Haralson usually parks her car, Haralson
says. He also called her father, her brother, her husband and her daughter, who
was away at college, according to her lawsuit. The collector dialed her
husband's cellphone so much that he had to stop answering it and missed
several business calls, she says. The collector called her brother at work
enough to jeopardize his job and refused to stop, she says. Then he tracked
Haralson down on Facebook and wrote: "Good day. Please contact Mr. Rice at
MarkOne regarding a personal business matter," followed by his phone number.
Haralson says: "When I started getting Facebook messages, that was very
Fighting back: Finally, Haralson says she went
online and found out that she wasn't the only one having problems with the
company. "Everything was the same, the Facebook messages and all the
harassment," she says. "I thought they must be doing this to a lot of people."
Attorney Billy Howard of Morgan & Morgan law firm, agreed to represent her
and filed a lawsuit in state court for violation of Florida law that governs
collections practices by creditors. "It got to the point where I couldn't deal
with the harassment. It was too much. I was just getting sick of it," Haralson
The outcome: Attorney Howard says he and Haralson plan to take the case
to trial. "She tried to do the right thing. She
was not ducking and trying not to pay her bills -- she was in constant contact
with them," Howard says. "There was no reason for them to call and bother her
daughter and rest of her family but to terrorize her." Haralson says: "I
would love nothing more, if I walked away without a penny, than to see them out
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