How to stop debt collectors from contacting you about a relative

There are laws to deter debt collectors from harassing you

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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear To Her Credit,
I am getting phone calls asking for a relative of mine. They appear to be from a debt collector. How would a debt collector have a relative’s phone number? Wouldn’t the relative have to provide this phone number? How can I get them to stop?  – Katie

Answer

Dear Katie,
Your relative didn’t necessarily give out your phone number. Debt collectors often call relatives or other people they think may help them find someone who owes money.

Sometimes they even call relatives of people who have died, trying to get paid. It’s not always clear if they don’t know the person has died and they are trying to collect a legitimate debt, or if they purposely call relatives of the deceased, hoping to score payment on a bogus debt from someone who doesn’t know better.

Some phone calls by debt collectors to relatives and other connections are legal; others are not. All collection phone calls, whether for yourself or for someone else, can be stopped, however.

When creditors cannot get in touch with someone who owes money, they are allowed by law to “skip-trace” them by calling anyone they think might know the debtor’s whereabouts. Information aggregation sites, such as Spokeo, make it easy for them to get the names of family members and other people that the missing debtor may have shared an address with. Unless people use strict privacy controls, social media can also tip off debt collectors about who they know and who probably knows where they are.

However, debt collectors are not allowed to do any of the following:

  • Violate the debtor’s financial privacy. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says that absent express permission from the debtor, a collector may not communicate with anyone about a debt other than the consumer, and certain people such as attorneys.

  • Call repeatedly. Debt collectors are allowed one call to a given phone number in an attempt to find someone.

  • Disclose personal information. The collector cannot tell a relative or other person that the person they are trying to reach owes a debt.

  • Neglect to identify themselves. The caller must identify himself or herself and note that the purpose of the call is to confirm or correct location information on the consumer.

Your response to an assumed debt collector who is trying to find your relative is up to you. I’m sure a lot of people give out the relative’s phone number or address, whether it’s to be helpful or to get the caller off their case. Or perhaps the relative is a bit of a pain anyway, so why not? Before I gave out personal information to anyone, I would check with the person the caller is seeking, or I’d just refuse to answer the caller. I’m under no obligation to assist the caller in debt collection efforts.

If you continue to get calls from the same number, tell the callers they are breaking the law. Blocking the phone number may be the simplest and fastest way to stop them. You would think they would call from another number, but in my experience, these callers tend to give up and move on.

If bill collectors seeking your relative are harassing you, take notes of the number of calls, what they say and that you told them to stop. If you’re serious about punishing them, look for a lawyer who specializes in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. According to the FTC website, a judge can require the debt collector to pay you up to $1,000, even if you can’t prove actual damages. The collector also generally must pay your attorney’s fees and court costs.

Repeated calls like this from a debt collector are annoying, and they interrupt your life and the things you are trying to accomplish. You can and should put a stop to it so you can live in peace.

See related: 10 tips for dealing with debt collectors, collection

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Updated: 11-25-2017