One out of three U.S. consumers has a debt in collections, but it often seems, based on news reports social media accounts, like many more have received a debt collection call recently. That suggests a lot of people are getting calls when they shouldn’t. What can you do if a debt collector is bothering you over a mistake?
With 77 million people owing a debt, according to the Urban Institute, there’s a lot of debt collectors making a lot of calls. Sometimes, those calls target the wrong people. There are plenty of reasons this might happen. Perhaps the debt has already been paid, but the consumer has not been properly credited. Perhaps identity theft is to blame. Sometimes, there’s an honest mistake — fat fingers, perhaps — that attaches an incorrect phone number to a debtor’s account.
A particularly pernicious wrong-consumer problem involves recycled phone numbers. Just like every other dwindling natural resource, America is running out of phone numbers, meaning telephone companies end up re-issuing old ones. A Federal Communications Commission study from 2011 says 37 million numbers were recycled annually, a huge jump from a decade earlier, due to the increased number of devices with numbers that consumers have.
But recycled numbers naturally end up causing problems when the new number holder gets calls intended for its prior user. Alicia Figluizzi, 34, suspected recycled numbers were the problem when she was hit by a flurry of debt collector calls last year. (Credit.com chronicled her story).
“I explain to the collectors that, ‘If I was her, do you think I would be answering the phone?’ They say, ‘Sorry … blah blah,’ ” she told us. “But then three hours later, same company calls again. All day long. For weeks. Thankfully some have learned that I am in fact not the person they are looking for, and that, no, I do not know how to reach that person. It’s mindboggling.”
How Can I Make It Stop?
No matter the reason, wrong-number debt collector calls are a real hassle. So how can you stop them? There’s no fool-proof method, because some callers break the rules, but here are suggestions, even for dealing with law-breakers.
1. Don’t Ignore the Call
Plenty of consumers owe a debt and don’t realize it. Even a small debt could cause you a big problem when you try to obtain credit. If you get a call from a debt collector, get all the details. (You should also check your credit to see if the debt is appearing on your credit report and affecting your credit score. You can get your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com and see you credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.) Even if the company involved sounds unfamiliar, pay attention. That could be the result of a name change, or a debt that’s been sold, or identity theft. This leads to tip No. 2.
2. Write a Letter (Really)
You want to get all the details you can about why the debt collector thinks he or she is calling you. It’s best to formalize the process. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has excellent sample letters on its website for dealing with these issues. It’s a good idea to send a “stop contacting me” letter to the collector, but include in the note a demand for more information, like this: “I do not have any responsibility for the debt you’re trying to collect. If you have good reason to believe that I am responsible for this debt, mail me the documents that make you believe that. Stop all other communication with me and with this address, and record that I dispute having any obligation for this debt.” (The form letter at the CFPB website includes additional language you should include, so be sure to check it out). You can send the letter return receipt requested and keep copies of everything.
3. Invoke Your Rights
Your letter triggers additional rights you have. If a debt collector keeps contacting you after receiving a demand to stop, you may be able to sue for damages — potentially $500 per phone call. Both the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act create rights for consumers to receive penalty awards if unwanted phone calls don’t stop. If you get another unwanted contact after you’ve sent a “stop calling me” letter, don’t be afraid to tell the caller you know your rights under the law. That’s often enough to get them to back off.
4. Tell the Authorities
Of course, not all parties play by the rules. Some debt callers won’t give you their address. Some will spoof their phone numbers. Some will resell your debt even after you’ve disputed it. Some really do intimidate consumers and convince them to pay debts they don’t how just to stop the harassment. The moment you get a sense that a collector isn’t playing fair, you can complain to your state’s attorney general. You should also complain to the CFPB, which offers a simple Web-based form for filing your complaint. You could also consider contacting your local Better Business Bureau. (some consumers say they have luck with that – but if your harasser isn’t obeying the law, he or she may not fear a BBB complaint, either.)
More on Managing Debt:
- The Credit.com Debt Management Learning Center
- Understanding Your Debt Collection Rights
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights