Calls about debt? You have rights

The phone rings for the 1,000th time and it’s a debt collector again. Do you have any rights? What are they?

When a debt collector harasses the wrong person, the law is not written to protect the consumer. That’s because it never occurred to the members of the U.S. Congress that bill collectors would be slimy enough to try to intimidate those who don’t owe the debt.

However, under the law, if you do have a debt, you also have the right to send what’s called a drop dead letter. This letter will prevent the collector from contacting you again about a debt. Collectors can’t call at work once you say they can’t. (Though you can still be sued against the debt you legitimately owe.)

To avoid collection calls in the future, I’ve advised people to get a Google Voice phone number and give that when you apply for service to a company. That way, you’re not creating a situation where a debt collector could potentially get your real cell or home phone number down the road.

Of course, if you owe a debt and have the money, I want you to pay the debt.

But know that if you pay even so much as one penny against an old debt that’s not legally active anymore, the entire debt comes back to life even if it had been outside of the statute of limitations.

Most often, though, people can’t afford to pay. In that case, collectors may say horrible things. They may tell your kids you’re going to jail if they get them on the phone. Or they may call your neighbors to try to use them to humiliate you into paying.

Remember this: If a collector is harassing you, you can shut down their harassment by certified mail using that drop dead letter. And know that they can’t threaten to kill you or physically harm you. Mainly, they want to create intimidation and fear. Report them immediately to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If you legitimately owe a debt, you have specific rights under federal law. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when dealing with collectors:

• Always record any calls from/to a collector.

• You have the right to tell a collector never to contact you again. Use a drop dead letter and send it via certified mail. You can still, however, be sued against the debt even after sending this letter.

• If you legitimately owe money and wish to make a deal to pay, never give a collector your checking account number over the phone. Collectors routinely take more money than they say they’ll take. Pay only by money order.

• Never pay one cent until you have an agreement in writing stating your payment(s) will resolve the debt in full.

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