It’s every consumer’s worst nightmare: You’re busy at work, mired in debt, and your cellphone keeps ringing. You’re doing your best to pay off that bill, but the unknown number flashing on your phone’s screen is a dismal reminder you haven’t.
“Most people want to pay their debt, they just run into bad situations where they can’t,” Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com, says. “If a debt collector will work with them, a lot of times, they’ll resolve the debt.”
But not every debt collector plays by the rules, and luckily there are protections in place that allow consumers to fight back if a debt collector has run afoul of the law. Here are 12 times when consumers can sue.
1. Calling Early & Calling Late
A debt collector may not call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. The time frame may sound arbitrary, but think about it: This is when you’re away from work, at home with family, or resting in bed. When a debt collector calls at a time that is known to be inconvenient, David Menditto, director of litigation for Lifetime Debt Solutions, a law firm in Chicago, says, that’s a violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
2. Calling at Other Inconvenient Times
If you’ve told the collector not to call at a certain time, even if it’s when you take a nap, Detweiler says, that’s another violation of the FDCPA. “If you were to tell the collector, I work nights, so don’t call me then, they can’t,” she says. Consumers can set the parameters.
3. Discussing Debt With Third Parties
“If a debt collector calls your mother and says, ‘Hi, we’re looking for John, he owes us money. How do we get in touch?’” that’s yet another violation of the FDCPA, Menditto tells Credit.com. “They can call, ask to speak with John, and ask whether this is a good number to reach him at, but they can’t be discussing the debt,” he says. Collectors are allowed to contact a debtor’s spouse, however.
If people you know are getting calls about a debt you may owe, it’s a good time to check your credit reports to see if there are delinquent accounts or collection accounts listed. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, and you can get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com, to look for any issues. There are debt collection scammers out there, so checking your credit is a way of verifying that the call is legitimate.
4. When a Lawyer’s Involved
If a collector calls even though he or she knows that you’ve hired an attorney, that’s a violation of the FDCPA, Menditto says. The reason: The consumer may intend to file for bankruptcy and they’ve probably told the collector to stop contacting them. “We’ve had clients who claimed they told the debt collector to stop calling, and they didn’t,” Menditto says. “Then they got an attorney and said, ‘Talk to him,’ and the collector kept calling and the collection got violated there.”
5. Making False Threats
Some collectors threaten to take action without really meaning it. For instance, they might say, “If you don’t pay in the next five days, we’re going to sue you,” Menditto says. If they keep making threats and don’t follow through, that’s a sure sign they’ve violated the FDCPA and you can sue.
6. Calling the Wrong Party
When a collector continues harassing you even though he’s got the wrong number, that’s grounds for a lawsuit, Menditto says. Typically, the collector thinks the person is lying about their identity, so they keep calling in the hopes the debtor will come clean.
7. Using Pre-Recorded or Automated Voice Calls
Robocalls aren’t just annoying, they’re flat-out illegal, Menditto says, citing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which regulates what’s known as automated calls. “The TCPA prohibits any company, not just a debt collector, from calling you on your cellphone using an automated telephone system or pre-recorded voice without your express consent,” he says. “We typically, in the majority of cases, get relief because the debt collector knows they did it.”
8. Using Automatic Phone Dialing Systems
Yes, there are machines that exist to solely crank out numerous phone calls. Known as a predictive dialer or ATDS, these telephone systems dial numbers one after another, and may contact consumers up to five times a day. They’re illegal under the TCPA and can net consumers who sue anywhere between $500 and $1,500 per call, as part of the damages.
9. Misrepresenting the Nature of the Debt
Though this tactic may work for collectors, it’s illegal to misrepresent the nature of the debt, Detweiler says, citing the FDCPA. A collector can’t pressure family members to pay a deceased relative’s debt because they’re responsible (which they aren’t, unless they were co-signers or joint account holders on the debt) or because they have a “moral obligation.” The law has severe penalties for these kinds of collectors, so those who are being harassed should contact a lawyer.
10. Threatening Violence
Has the collector threatened violence? That’s a violation of the FDCPA. “It can get pretty ugly if a collector is crossing the line,” Detweiler says, and “the ones who do create a lot of stress and anxiety that leads consumers to make a bad financial decision.”
11. Using Profanity
Fortunately, the FDCPA protects debtors from verbal abuse such as the use of obscene or profane language. If it’s meant to cause harm to the hearer or reader, it’s grounds for a lawsuit, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
12. False Representation
If a collector doesn’t state who they are to the consumer, be it in writing or over the phone, that’s yet another violation of the FDCPA, according to the FTC’s website. A collector must disclose to the consumer that they’re attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.
More on Managing Debt:
- Understanding Your Debt Collection Rights
- The Best Way to Loan Money to Friends & Family
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights