Managing Debt

Help! Debt Collectors Are Calling My Relatives

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It’s stressful enough when you are getting calls from collectors. But what do you do when they are calling your relatives about your debt? A reader asks:

I have been receiving weird calls from 1-888??? numbers and recently they stopped and have been appearing as “unknown” on my iPhone. They left me a message saying something about court and I should call them as soon as possible. I deleted the message so I don’t remember exactly what it said. So last night my mom came back from work and told me that that my aunt told her that they called her at her house asking about me. They scared my aunt and now we are all scared. My mom is going to call them tomorrow. I’m kind of afraid because my mom is a very gullible woman. She won’t let me call them because I’m 19. I have had a loan for school but it was through financial aid and it was the kind that I don’t have to pay until I graduate from school. I don’t understand how they got my aunt’s phone number? How did they get my number in the first place? I am so confused.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on but the first thing you need to do is talk with this collector. It could be a legitimate account you aren’t aware you owe, your name could be mixed up with that of someone else, or it could be a debt collection scam. Based on several things you are saying here, I suspect the latter, but I can’t say for certain without more information.

When you talk with the debt collector, your goal should be to find out what debt they are calling about, and to get them to send you something in writing. Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you are entitled to written verification of the debt. If the collector says they don’t have to send you anything in writing then that’s one clue that this is likely a scam. I don’t recommend you agree to pay anything until you verify the debt is legitimate and that the collection agency is legitimate. That’s why you want to get written verification of the debt.

It also concerns me that the collector is leaving messages about taking you to court. It could be a sign that this is either a very aggressive collection agency or that you are dealing with a scammer. Under federal law, collectors may not threaten to take action they cannot take or don’t intend to take. So threatening to take you to court before they have even verified that they are calling the right person is a sign that something isn’t right.

If the collector tells you (or your family members) that you will be arrested if you don’t pay right away, then you are very likely the target of a fake debt collection scam. And if they tell you that they have taken you to court, my colleague Steve Rhode at Getoutofdebt.org has a good suggestion for how to respond. Ask them for the name of the court and the case number. Then call the court to verify it. Again, chances are they won’t have that information, and they are just making it up to try to scare you into paying.

As far as calling your family members go, collectors are only allowed to call others to locate you. Once they have located you they are no longer allowed to call your relatives unless they cosigned for you. And even if they are just trying to locate you, they shouldn’t discuss any details of your debt with others. By the way, it’s not that hard for collectors to find your relatives. You may have listed their names and contact information on loan applications, or they can use “skip tracing” services to gather that information.

Again, it’s hard to say for sure what’s happening here but don’t be scared or intimidated. Talk with them, find out what they have to say, and don’t make payments until they send you something in writing. If the collection agency does verify the debt and it turns out to be legitimate, then you can explore your options for resolving it.

But it may not even come to that.

Image: Matt Reinbold, via Flickr

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