Most of us have been there. You have a bad month financially and cannot pay your current bills. Not too long ago, if you failed to make a credit card payment, the payment was simply added on to the next month’s bill. These days, if the payment is a day or two late the harassing phone calls begin. If you are in a real tight spot and still cannot pay your creditors, after a month or so, the collection agencies begin their reign of terror. But when it comes to collection attempts, how much is too much?  There are laws that govern creditors collection efforts. These are regulated by what is known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. And anyone that violates these laws can be penalized.

But as with any law, there are some that believe that they are above it or exempt from it. Perhaps the creditors think that most people would not spend their time and money defending themselves.  It is a risk that some collectors are willing to take. They think the benefits outweigh the risk. Just like that guy speeding in and out of traffic. He may get to work a  minute or two earlier, but if he is caught by the Highway Patrol, the penalty could be stiff.  Benefit vs. Risk.  In this scenario, Low Benefit – High Risk. But for a creditor they subscribe to the thought that there violations are High Benefit – Low Risk.

And so it was that the world’s largest collection agency, Expert Global Solutions, and its subsidiaries (ALW Sourcing; NCO Financial Systems and North Shore Agency, Inc.) were accused of calling people over and over again — including after being told to stop — as well as calling early in the morning and late at night, at consumers’ workplaces, and leaving messages that included details of the debt. All this in violation of the Fair Trade Collection Act, and its established rules of conduct.

And what, you ask, was the penalty? A whopping $3.2 million! The largest penalty ever against a third-party collection agency.  So maybe now they will rethink their “Low Risk” policies.

The Fair Trade Collection Practices covers a great many things that creditors may and may not do. This includes:

  • Harassment. That includes threats of harm, the use of obscene language or repeatedly calling.
  • Lying. They can’t claim to be lawyers or government workers, allege you have committed a crime or send you documents and assert they are legal documents when they aren’t.
  • Cheating. They can’t collect extra fees beyond what you owe, to threaten to take your property (unless they legally can), or contact you using a postcard.
  • Calling at all hours. A collector can’t call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you say they can, and they can’t call you at work if they’re told you can’t receive their calls there.

Even if a creditor is collecting within the boundaries of the law, you can ask them to stop, and they must, by law, stop. How? Write a letter to the collector (keep a copy) and send it by certified mail and request a return receipt. “Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you again, with two exceptions: a collector can contact you to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit,”according to the FTC  “Sending such a letter to a debt collector you owe money to does not get rid of the debt, but it should stop the contact.”

An acquaintance of mine told me how he returned home one night after work, only to find almost 15 messages from a collection agency trying to collect. He composed a “Cease and Desist” letter and the next day faxed it to the collection agency. When he got home that night, he found 10 messages from the same collection agency. The next day he faxed the letter almost a dozen times throughout the day then received only 5 calls. The next day he put the fax machine on his desk and continually faxed his letter to the creditor all day long. He calculated over 50 times that day. When he got home, only one message and the next day the messages stopped entirely.

We have all, at one time or another, fallen on hard times financially. I don’t blame a creditor for calling and trying to get the money that is owed to  them, but they must maintain civility and abide by the laws that govern them. We are all human beings trying to live and work together on this big blue marble. But if someone gets out of line, that does not mean we should simply roll over and take it. We, the consumer, have rights. And we must not be afraid to assert those rights when appropriate.

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