How to keep debt collectors at bay

There is a way to make them stop calling

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,
I am dealing with an elderly lady who has over $16,000 in credit card debt. She acknowledges the debt, but she can't pay it because her only income is her Social Security check -- and her basic living expenses are higher than her Social Security benefits.

Not only is this lady in debt, but she's in hospice and has approximately six months to live. I'm trying to help her handle her affairs, but I'm constantly being bombarded with collection calls. The collectors have said they would settle for $5,000, but even this is impossible. There isn't even any money to make the minimum monthly payment.

What can be done to stop the phone calls and harassment? How do we handle this? The lady will die before the debt can be paid. Then what will the creditors do? If they know it will have to be written off upon her death, why can't they be made to just do it now or just cease to harass me?

Please give me some advice. Thank you. --Angie

Answer for the expert

Dear Angie,
You don't have to put up with creditors calling on the phone. You don't even need a reason for not wanting to talk to them. The Federal Trade Commission rules state that you can send creditors a cease-and-desist letter, and if they continue to call you, they are in violation of FTC law.

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Most people feel obligated to answer the phone when it rings, however. Once they are on the phone, they feel like they have to answer every question and try their best to straighten things out with the caller. They may even vent their frustration over circumstances or over the tactics of the collectors. Sometimes people tell their life stories and try to get sympathy or clear their name. It won't do any good.

For one thing, every time you talk to bill collectors, you're probably talking to people who will only tell you their first names. Talk all you want, but these people probably work for large organizations, possibly in another country. They listen to rants and sob stories every day, so they're not impressed. They have no authority to straighten out your account. The only thing they are trying to do is get money out of you. Next time the collection company calls, it will be a different representative and you can start all over. You can see how futile it is to spend time and emotional energy explaining the elderly lady's situation to every collector who calls!

Talking to creditors who call won't help, but one simple step will.

"It is very simple and easy to stop collection agencies from calling," says Georg Finder, Independent Credit Evaluator. "Send them a cease and desist notice by certified mail. It is important to send it in a way that there is proof of delivery which includes a signature and date of receipt; otherwise, it won't work."

Here's what to do:

  1. Every time a collection company representative calls, ask for the mailing address and tell them not to contact you by phone again.
  2. Download a basic cease-and-desist sample letter and fill in the blanks as needed for each collection company. Have the elderly lady or whoever has power of attorney for her sign the letters.
  3. Go to the post office or mailing center and send the cease-and-desist letters by certified mail with receipt requested.

You have enough to do taking care of a patient in hospice. After the collection agencies receive the letters, at least the calls should stop so you have peace and quiet.

See related: Debt collection sample letters, What happens to credit card debt after death

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Updated: 11-21-2017