When his mother, already distraught from her father’s recent death, received a phone call from a debt collector early this year, “Roger” (a pseudonym) was angry. “I saw her get the call at the funeral,” he said.
The debt collector was trying to tell Roger’s mother she owed a medical bill she thought had been paid in full, covered by insurance and her co-pay. This wasn’t the first time they heard about this debt. In a previous conversation the collection agent had said that if she believed she did not owe the money, she needed to file a police report alleging fraud.
Instead of fighting with the collector again — at her father’s funeral, no less — she handed the phone to her son, a self-taught expert on debt collection rights.
Roger had already discovered firsthand that not all debt collectors follow the letter of the law.
A few months prior, he had been contacted by a collector who was trying to locate his grandfather about a credit card debt he allegedly owed. Roger was not about to reveal his grandfather’s whereabouts, and instead set about trying to solve the problem, researching what the collectors could and could not do. “I ended up pushing back,” he said. He said he learned mostly from blogs and comment boards. “I did learn the hard way that not every resource is accurate, and many blogs and sites blow the laws out of proportion.” he said in an email. “I learned not to let the collector in on how much you know,” he added.
How to Handle a Call
It was purely coincidence that Roger’s mom (and by extension, he) got a call on the day of his grandfather’s funeral, but Roger was prepared. First, he wanted to see evidence that his mother actually owed money.
Roger asked for validation of the debt, which he knew his mom was entitled to request under federal law. The collection agency presumably did not read the original documents before putting them in the mail to her; the supporting documents they mailed showed his mother’s account had a zero balance! Roger thinks that perhaps his mother’s “debt” was part of a portfolio sold to a debt buyer that in turn hired the collection agency, and that his mother’s account was put in the portfolio by mistake.
Roger also knew there was another way to stop the collection calls. He helped his mother notify the debt collector, in writing, that “all telephone calls are inconvenient” (emphasis added). He used the word “inconvenient” deliberately, because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids contact at “a time or place known or which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer.” By letting the collection agency know that phone calls were inconvenient he was insisting they communicate in writing.
All the while, Roger was documenting every contact. He photographed his mother’s cellphone screen to show dates and times of phone conversations and took copious notes. He used certified mail, keeping receipts. Once he tried to fax documents to the number on the collectors’ letterhead; it was a dead number.
After about two weeks (and at least seven calls), “We just said, ‘Look, just tell us what we have to do to make the calls stop.'” Roger said. When they didn’t, they decided it was time to get an attorney involved.
Because Roger had kept such careful records, it was clear that the debt collection agency had not played by the rules. Not only that, but his mother hadn’t owed any money in the first place. The case was settled, and while he can’t reveal the amount of the settlement, the collector ended up paying far more to settle than his mother was alleged to have owed.
Clear & Simple
Roger has become a regular commenter on the Credit.com blog, particularly about stories focusing on debt-collection practices. He says he likes to write to fellow commenters because collectors’ failures to follow the rules established by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act “just makes me mad.”
His advice to others who think that their rights are being violated:
- Record everything. Keep a log of phone calls, with the exact time and phone number, and take notes.
- Keep all receipts.
- Communicate via certified mail, and if possible, put the certified mail number in the letter. And keep that letter simple. “Three sentences at most. 1. I dispute this debt in its entirety and request validation. 2. All telephone calls are inconvenient. 3. Sincerely, you. Nothing more is needed!” he advised.
Roger didn’t like spending time and money to dispute the debt, and he said there would have been no lawsuit had the collection agency only honored the request made in the very first phone call: to stop calling.
The settlement included having the debt collectors agree to remove the collection account from his mother’s credit reports. That’s important because even though she had owed nothing, a collections account can seriously damage your credit score — and the higher it is before, the more a derogatory item can hurt. It’s a good idea for everyone to check credit reports and credit scores regularly. Mistakes can and do happen, and it’s important to make sure your reports are accurate. The three major credit-reporting agencies are all required to provide at least one free credit report per year if you request it. You can also get two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.
More on Managing Debt:
- 5 Tips for Consolidating Credit Card Debt
- The Best Way to Loan Money to Friends & Family
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights