Can debt collectors call your mother?

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert Dear To Her Credit,
Is it legal for a credit collection agency to start calling your mother when you don't answer their calls? She is not listed on anything I have ever applied for. Also, are they allowed to give her any information? This company read out my credit report to her.  -- Sandy

Answer for the expert Dear Sandy,
While creditors may hope the threat of calling your mother and reading your credit report to her will be effective, it's strictly illegal.

You have a right to financial privacy.  Ex-bankruptcy judge and lawyer R. Glen Ayers references the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which says that absent express permission from the debtor, a collector may not contact anyone other than the consumer, attorneys and the like. "Contacting your mother about the debt is clearly a violation," he says. "So would be disclosure about the debt. Reading the mother the credit report would probably be an abusive act and could violate a number of other sections."

Creditors can call your relatives in an effort to find you, however. Ayers says, "Contacting Mother to 'skip-trace' is OK as long as the collector complies with Sec. 804 [15 U.S.C. sec. 1692b], which limits the number of calls, bans the collector from disclosing that the person owes a debt and requires the collector to identify himself and state that he is confirming or correcting location information on the consumer."

One reason this creditor is harassing your mother is that you may have stopped taking the creditor's calls. While I advise people not to talk on the phone to bill collectors, it's important to take the right steps to make the calls stop. Instead of looking at caller ID and just not answering the phone, pick it up and tell the collector not to call you again. Then, download a basic cease-and-desist sample letter, fill in the blanks and send by certified mail with receipt requested.

If you want to push the issue with the abusive bill collector, you can find a lawyer who specializes in the FDCPA. According to the FTC website, the judge can require the debt collector to pay you up to $1,000, even if you can't prove that you suffered actual damages. The collector generally pays your attorney's fees and court costs.

Enforcement of regulations over debt collectors is in flux at the moment. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has published new rules on how it will oversee the largest debt collectors. Those CFPB rules for large debt collectors kick in Jan. 2, 2013. You can also report any problems you have with a debt collector to your state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission. Your state may have additional laws, which you can find on the website of the attorney general's office for your state.

You can't avoid a creditor forever, though. Once you've stopped the phone calls, you should resolve the debt or face further consequences. Collectors can garnish your wages, place liens on your property and pile more negative marks on your credit report. And even without the phone ringing, that debt is still hanging over your head, causing you stress and possibly keeping you up at night.

The best way to resolve your debt depends on a number of factors, including whether it is a legitimate debt, whether it is past the statute of limitations in your state, your ability to pay the debt and whether you need to consider bankruptcy.

Your decisions for dealing with this debt and any other debt you have can affect your financial life for years. If you aren't sure what your options are or how to proceed, an accredited counseling agency can help. Choose a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies

See related: How to handle unethical debt collectors

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Updated: 11-22-2017