Managing Debt

How One Man Learned to Fight Back Against Debt Collectors

Comments 4 Comments

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:

Image: iStock

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

  • BlindlyCommenting

    Knowing what do to do when creditors or collectors call is a very important individual responsibility. Everyone needs to have a handle on what these guys can and cannot do.

    But be wary of people that hold themselves out as non-attorney “experts” in debt collection law. Especially if they are frequent commenters online. This can happen: http://www.insidearm.com/daily/debt-collection-news/debt-collection/circuit-court-upholds-award-of-fees-for-defendant-in-an-absolutely-crazy-fdcpa-case/

    • “Roger”

      You’re absolutely right on both points. Know your rights so you can protect yourself if they are violated. One should also be wary of anything posted on the internet as a general rule of thumb, which is why an attorney became involved when the time was right. In any case, one should always stick to the indisputable points of the law, which is why the letters they received used only terms that were present in the FDCPA, and not 3-page form letters found online (that are nonsense in general).

      That article/case you cited was an unique exception. Further reading shows there was a lot more to that story than that article addressed. For starters, the plaintiff was offered a settlement early on for the maximum amount he could have been awarded under the law; he declined. He made it no secret that he wanted to draw the whole case out as long as he could to make it as expensive as possible for the defendant. He even went as far as to make quasi-sexual remarks towards the defendant’s counsel and bragged about it. If that wasn’t enough, he even e-mailed that counsel to invite them to read all of his opinions and remarks about how he was actively trying to turn the whole case into a circus. To make it worse, he acted the same way in court.

      There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the general idea behind why he was found to have brought his case in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment. One should not be scared to assert their rights out of fear that what happened in that article could happen to them; an honest consumer trying to protect themselves should have no worry of anything like this happening, especially if you seek the help of a consumer protection attorney when you feel it’s time to finally take action after exhausting other efforts.

  • heavyw8t

    As disturbing as it is that the parasite was calling about a debt that did not exist, doesn’t anybody else question WHY her cell phone was not powered off during her husband’s funeral? Is ANYTHING so important that it can’t wait until after the funeral? I mean, everybody she knows is at the funeral. Who could be calling that can’t wait an hour? I take my privacy one step further and NEVER answer a call that is not from a number in my contacts. Anybody else can leave a voice mail and I will decide if I call them back. Also, any call coming in as a private number or with caller ID blocked is rejected and the phone hangs up on them.

    • “Roger”

      It was her father’s funeral, not her husband’s – just to clarify. The call was received during the second day of visitation of the funeral, and not during the final service. The number on the caller ID was local (despite that the agency was not; good ole’ caller ID spoofing) and was answered in case it was an old friend or relative with a new number that was inquiring about the passing of her father – perhaps after reading the obit in the paper, which had happened several times that day.

      Normally she will not answer unknown or private number calls, and I agree with you 100%. Given the situation and circumstances, it was all-around bad timing.

Find out where you stand.
Get your FREE personalized credit report card.

Sign Up Now
X

Stay Connected to Our Experts

Please submit your email address to get credit & money tips & advice
from our team of 30+ experts, delivered weekly to your inbox.