It seems like I'm hearing more and more about really nasty debt collectors who are hounding people, including some of my clients. These clients are being stuck with large outstanding balances on their collision related medical bills due to high deductibles and co-pays. Since unfair debt collections law is a growing field of expertise, I've asked Dayton consumer attorney Amy Wells (www.OhioConsumerHelp.com) to write a guest column on abusive and illegal debt collection tactics. Her insight on this issue is posted below....thanks Amy!
ABUSIVE DEBT COLLECTORS—AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
One industry is not feeling the sting of our serious economic recession and mass job losses: debt collection companies. Many consumers are finding themselves unable to sustain payments on their credit accounts and medical debts. Delinquent credit card accounts hit a six-year high in 2008.
Creditors unable to devote the resources necessary to pursue the thousands of people defaulting on various accounts have turned to debt collection firms. In many instances, the debt collector buys charged-off accounts from the original lender for pennies on the dollar. Regardless of the nominal amount paid for the debt, the debt collector usually tries to recoup most, or all, of the original debt.
The number of debt collection firms has mushroomed from about a dozen in 1996 to over 500 today. This can only be expected to worsen as the economy spirals downward.
The proliferation of aggressive collection firms has exposed consumers to a “new breed” of debt collectors, which frequently hound and oppress consumers to pay stale bills for amounts that may or may not be correct, or worse yet, may not even be theirs. Whether a consumer actually owes the debt or not, debt collectors may not engage in unfair, deceptive or abusive tactics.
In an attempt to squeeze money from consumers, some collectors resort to illegal tactics such as harassment, verbal abuse, and even threats of violence or legal action. In more egregious cases, the debt collection company will go so far as to harass and abuse a family member with a similar name, or even the wrong consumer!
Some signs that you may be a victim of unfair collections include:
• Third parties other than you are being contacted;
• You received Postcards from the Collector;
• Calls at unusual times or unusual places (calls before 8:00 a.m or after 9:00 p.m. or at your job when the debt collector knows you are not permitted to take such calls);
• Continued contact after written instructions to stop;
• Abusive, threatening, or harassing contacts;
• Collectors refusing to identify themselves;
• False or misleading representations; and
• Failure to report a debt as “disputed” to the Credit Bureaus.
What you can do to protect yourself if you are a victim of unfair collections:
• Keep a detailed log of all communications, and copies of all documents;
• Dispute the debt in writing within 30 days;
• Record harassing phone calls (Be certain to consult a legal professional regarding the legality of recording in your state);
• Don't take the calls (This does not cancel your debt. The original creditor or the collection agency may still decide to sue you);
• Try to negotiate the debt (Be certain to get everything in writing before you pay any money. And, consider contacting a legal professional to ensure the enforceability of any written agreement);
• File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or Ohio Attorney General; and
• Consult with an attorney about filing a lawsuit.
Debt collectors who violate your legal rights by using unfair and abusive collection tactics may be liable for your out-of- pocket losses (e.g. loss of income, counseling expenses, telephone charges), non-economic damages (e.g. anxiety, loss of sleep, loss of enjoyment), and also your legal expenses.
Contributed by Amy L. Wells, consumer attorney at Behnke, Martin & Schulte, LLC. www.OhioConsumerHelp.com