Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Some steps to get debt collectors to leave you alone
Q: Collection agencies keep calling my home number, asking for people who not only don't live here but have never lived in my apartment. People show up demanding to see the person who owes money.
I live in an apartment complex and, after months of harassment, I convinced the agency it had the wrong person. But the agency simply sold the debt to another debt collector, and the harassment started all over again.
The people they are looking for moved about five blocks away three years ago, and I gave the debt collectors their new address and telephone numbers. However, they still come here and harass me. How can I make this stop? -- Bob
A: I feel your pain. Unfortunately, some collection agencies treat oral debt disputes, such as yours, as an immediate signal to sell the debt before it is formally disputed. By selling informally disputed debts, collectors can skirt the legal obligations imposed by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
You see, once you formally dispute a debt, the act requires the collectors to cease collection efforts or validate the debt. For some sleazy collectors, selling disputed debts is their way to cease their own collection activities while recouping at least part of the price paid for such debts in a subsequent sale. To their way of thinking, it may be cheaper to sell a debt quickly than to take the time to validate it.
The net effect is what you are experiencing. The debt goes back into collections to a new agency without validation. This unintended consequence of the FDCPA creates a situation in which debts are sold and resold to the next collector, and this subjects you to an unending cycle of collection and dispute.
To stop the harassment, get everything you can in writing, and keep good notes of the phone calls and personal visits. Then, armed with that ammunition, take action.
First, the FDCPA requires that you dispute an invalid debt in writing within 30 days of first being contacted regarding the debt. You can learn more about your rights under the act by visiting the Federal Trade Commission's website.
You'll need to find out the name and mailing address of the company that's calling you. To get the information you might try answering the caller's first inquiry with, "Who is calling?" The caller should provide you with his or her name and the company name.
Then, write a letter stating that you dispute the debt, based on the fact that you are not the person who owes it. Do not give out personal information such as your Social Security number or date of birth. The collection agency faces the burden of proving you owe the debt.
Send the letter via certified mail, with a return receipt requested. Upon receiving your letter, the collection company must provide proof that you, not the other person, owe the debt.
The debt collector obviously will be unable to produce proof for a debt in your name, so the agency must stop contacting you per the FDCPA. It also must mark the debt as disputed, until it's solved. A disputed debt has virtually no resale value, but it has a possible liability for the collector.
Should the calls continue, then file a complaint on the company with your state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission. Send a copy of your complaint to the collection agency, so it knows you mean business.
Next, you have the option of contacting a consumer rights attorney in your area to determine if you have a case to sue the collection agency for noncompliance of the FDCPA.
This is when you will need to give your attorney your meticulously kept records of phone calls and visits from the collection agency. You could be entitled to damages.