Anyone in serious debt may deal with a variety of emotions on a daily basis: embarrassment, regret, and anger. When faced with debt collectors, who may constantly hound a debtor to pay an old debt, people often experience fear. They may even stop answering their phone, out of fear of receiving yet another debt collection call.
If you are being chased by debt collectors, follow these steps to protect yourself.
Know your rights
Even if you owe a large debt or have defaulted on a loan, you have rights. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a federal government agency designed to protect consumers, including you.
Often, debt collectors engage in illegal practices that run afoul of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This federal law prohibits deceptive, unfair, and abusive debt collection actions. This means that debt collectors cannot:
- Make phone calls at all hours of the day or night
- Curse at you or use obscene language
- Threaten violence or to have you arrested
- Lie or misrepresent your legal rights or the amount owed
- Obtain information from you through lies or misrepresentations
- Contact you at work if you tell them not to
If you believe a debt collector is engaging in any of these behaviors, you can file a complaint with both the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is another government agency that protects you from abusive practices. Georgia also has a Consumer Protection Unit that provides resources if you are dealing with unscrupulous debt collectors.
Avoid the instinct to bury your head in the sand. Knowledge is power.
First, ask the collection agency for a debt validation letter. This letter should include the amount of debt owed and the name of the original creditor. Was it from a maxed out credit card? Defaulted student loans? An overdrawn bank account? Find out the answers to these questions.
Second, look at your own papers. Compare your records to the debt validation letter. You should also read the fine print in your contract regarding defaulting on loans and debt collection to ensure that your contractual rights are protected.
Third, hit the books. What is the statute of limitations on your debt? If you forgot to pay a dentist 10 years ago, in many states, including Georgia, the debt might be unenforceable because the debt is too old. Georgia requires that a lawsuit to collect a debt must be filed within 6 years, otherwise, the creditor is out of luck.
Fourth, look at your credit report. What is being reported and how does it affect you? I encourage everyone to spend time looking over their credit reports on a regular basis, but you should absolutely check your credit report if you are being harassed by debt collectors.
(Note: even if you are not actively being hounded for an old debt, your credit report may show collection accounts you unaware of.)
Dispute the debt
Once you have your ducks in a row, there are a number of ways you can go about disputing the debt.
Is it your debt?
Often, debt collection agencies work quickly and sloppily. If they put in a social security number wrong, or misspell a name, they could be chasing you rather than the proper debtor. When you are validating the debt, the collection agency needs to show you why it believes this a financial obligation that you owe.
If you file a written dispute of the debt within 30 days of the first contact from the collection agency, the agency must stop all collection activities while it verifies in writing that this debt is indeed yours.
How much should you actually owe?
Double check the math of the collection account. The collection agency or the original creditor cannot artificially inflate your debts. Read your contract to determine the amount of interest you owe. Even innocent mistakes, such as an erroneous decimal point could have major consequences.
Don’t be on the hook for zombie debts
A zombie debt should be dead because it’s being collected after the statute of limitations has run out. In Georgia, as in many states, the statute of limitations for debt collection is six years. Credit.com provides a statutes of limitation by state, if your debt originated somewhere else.
Even if the statute of limitations has come and gone, if you agree the debt is yours or make a payment, you can be held responsible for it again. Get everything in writing before agreeing to anything.
The FTC does go after companies that threaten to sue over zombie debts, but you should also do your due diligence to make sure you are protected.
Once you have gone through the steps to ensure that the debt is yours, made sure the amount is accurate, and know that the collection agency can still legally collect the debt, do not be afraid to negotiate.
Often, debt collectors pay a very small amount to the original creditor for the right to collect a debt. Paying any money to them likely will net a profit, so they are often willing to cut a deal in order to move on.
Contact an experienced attorney
This article does not provide legal advice and is for informational purposes only. If you need help working with an unscrupulous debt collection agency, contact our office to speak with our experienced attorneys today.