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Can a Debt Collector Publicly Shame You Into Paying?

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People often prefer to keep their financial lives private, and that is particularly important if they’re in not-so-good situations like major debt. In many cases, you have a right to privacy, but some debts are a matter of public record. We recently had a reader ask about the legality of collection tactics:

Is it legal for a judgment creditor [to] publish the court judgment in the legal notices of a newspaper as an inducement for the judgment debtor to pay?

There’s not much information in this comment, but there are a few important things to note in response.

Debt Collectors Have to Play By the Rules

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors — those collecting a debt on behalf of someone else — cannot communicate with anyone but the debtor, with the exception of a spouse or the debtor’s attorney. That means collectors can’t tell or threaten to tell your family, friends or neighbors about the debt as a way to persuade you to pay.

They’re also barred from sending you embarrassing mail, like a postcard or a notice obviously from a collector. There are a slew of other rules by which debt collectors must abide — they can’t use abusive language or call you outside certain times of the day, for instance. Whenever you’re dealing with a debt collector, make sure you take time to get familiar with your rights as a consumer.

Public Records

A judgment, when it comes to debt, means a collector or creditor has taken you to court, and has won the lawsuit. You are then ordered to pay a certain amount of money, and that decision is filed with the court — a public record.

It’s not private anymore. A report on a public record could certainly end up in the local media. Especially in a small town, that could be part of regular news coverage. The creditor who has a judgment against you is prohibited from publishing a list of consumers who allegedly refuse to repay, according to Bob Lawless, a law professor at the University of Illinois. But if the creditor publishes a list of people he or she has a judgment against — not necessarily just those who refuse to pay — it’s unclear if that’s unlawful under FDCPA, Lawless said.

Collectors have more options when it comes to collecting a money judgment, but they vary by state, so it’s best to consult with a consumer law attorney in your state, according to Michael Bovee, Credit.com contributor and founder of the Consumer Recovery Network. Make sure the lawyer has a background in debt collection defense, Bovee said.

Of course, it’s better to avoid having a judgment on your credit report if possible — a judgment will stay there for seven years or longer if it goes unpaid. If you find yourself dealing with one, you’ll probably want to resolve the debt, since the statute of limitations for collecting it can be up to 20 years and renewable in some states.

One more thing: If a debt collector threatens you with a judgment if you don’t pay, the collector could be out of line. It all goes back to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Don’t let anyone intimidate you and violate your consumer rights.

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