If you’ve ever been on the phone with a debt collector you know how stressful it can feel. Debt collectors can call, send letters, and generally make your life miserable. While you do have rights under the law – such as telling them they can only contact you by mail – they do little to make things better.
Unfortunately, many consumers give debt collectors more ammunition than they should. Debt collectors will take anything they can get and use it against you. This article reviews the information you should never reveal to debt collectors, as well as some helpful tips to empower you to get debt collectors off your back for good.
When you’re dealing with a debt collector, it’s extremely important to watch what you say. When debt collectors call you on the phone and ask to speak with you about your debt, their intentions are to get you to agree to pay back some of the debt. On this surface, this may seem harmless, but it can in fact be to your detriment. Here are 8 pieces of information you should never reveal to debt collectors and why:
1. Phone Number
While the chances are good that the debt collection agency already has your home phone number, don’t give them any others, particularly your cell phone. The more numbers they have, the more they can harass you.
2. Email Address
Never give a debt collector your email address. Once again, this opens up another avenue for them to harass you.
3. Mailing Address
If the debt collector does not have your physical address, do not give it to them unless you intend to create a payment resolution/agreement.
4. Employer Information
If the debt collector does not have your employer/employment information yet, do not give it to them. They’re not supposed to contact you at work, but that has never stopped them in the past. It can also reflect badly on you at work if you’re constantly receiving calls, or it comes out that you’re facing financial difficulties.
5. Family Information
Whatever you do, never give a debt collector information about a family member, such as a phone number, employer information, email address, or physical address. This can greatly escalate harassment (and if you’re not the one with the debt, you could be doing your family member a huge disservice).
6. Bank Account Information
Never, ever, ever give a debt collector your bank account information. That’s a huge security risk. Any payment arrangements should be made formally and should not involve automatically debiting your account. With that information, there is nothing stopping a debt collector from draining the account in an attempt to satisfy the debt.
7. Credit Card Information
If a debt collector asks for your credit card information, hang up the phone. First, there’s a chance that it’s actually a fraudulent call and the thief is just trying to steal your information. Second, debt collectors should never be able to charge your card because, as with your bank account information, there is nothing stopping them from maxing out the card in an attempt to pay the debt.
8. Social Security Number
If the debt collector does not already have your Social Security number, do not provide it to them. Not only does that protect your privacy and help prevent the debt from being reported to the credit bureaus, but it can help prevent identity theft. Many debt collection calls are fraudulent and only looking to get information on your identity and finances.
Dealing with a debt that has been sent to collections may be further down on your list of things to do. In order to give yourself some peace of mind, it’s beneficial to not reveal information to debt collectors that will allow them to contact you more frequently.
In addition, there are countless scams and identity thieves that will call you posing as a collection agency. Once you give them your information, there’s a good chance your personal information will be compromised and you may be in an even worse position financially.
If you’re aware that you have a debt in collections and know the call you’re getting is from a collection agency, there are ways to deal with debt collectors. A good first step is to educate yourself on what your rights are as a consumer and use them to your advantage.
The first and arguably most important thing to do when dealing with debt collectors is to know your rights under the law. Debt collectors want you to feel powerless and small, unprotected and vulnerable. People are more likely to pay a debt when they feel backed into a corner.
However, you have protections under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This act prohibits debt collectors from sharing your information with others, contacting you at inappropriate times, contacting you by any means other than mail at your request, or contacting third parties about your debt.
Get familiar with your rights and when a debt collector contacts you, inform them that you know your rights and will report any infractions to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). You can also report them to your state’s attorney general office. Debt collectors may never be “nice”, but they are much more respectful when they realize they’re dealing with someone they cannot bully.
5 Things Debt Collectors Cannot Do
So, what are debt collectors prohibited from doing in the eyes of the law? Legally, they are prohibited from doing any of the following:
1. Threaten to Hurt You
Debt collectors are not allowed to threaten you with physical harm in any way.
2. Use Abusive Language
Debt collectors are legally bound to avoid using profane or obscene language in their communications with you.
3. Harass You
Debt collectors are unable to call you repeatedly (although almost all try to do it anyway).
4. Lie to You
Debt collectors are not allowed to lie about the amount owed, that they are anything other than a debt collector, or make false claims that you’ll be arrested or that there’s legal action being taken against you if there isn’t anything pending.
5. Treat You Unfairly
Finally, debt collectors are not allowed to treat you unfairly, such as trying to collect interest on a debt or depositing a post-dated check before the agreed-upon date.
You might be surprised, but there’s a huge industry associated with buying and selling debt in the United States. Surprisingly, much of the debt that’s bought and sold is invalid for one reason or another. This cycle of selling debt works because many consumers receive a debt collection letter in the mail, and rather than dealing with a black mark on their credit report, they settle the matter right then and there.
Don’t do that. There is a process called debt validation that allows you to challenge the validity of the debt. You basically write a letter to your creditor or collections agency demanding them to provide proof that the debt you owe is 100% true. Debt collectors are legally obligated to provide you with certain information:
- The name of the creditor you allegedly owe money to.
- The amount of money you owe.
- That if you dispute the letter via a written debt validation letter, the debt collector must provide written evidence that proves the debt belongs to you.
- That you have the right to dispute the debt within 30 days of being contacted, otherwise the debt collector can assume it’s valid.
So, what can you do if you receive a letter from a debt collection agency? In this case, you need to send a debt validation letter to them within 30 days of first contact. This is yet another right granted to consumers under the FDCPA and is designed to protect you against unethical debt collection practices.
Simply put, the letter forces the creditor to prove that you owe the money in the first place. In many cases, particularly with old debt that has changed hands several times as it is bought and sold, the agency cannot prove it and will have to cease collection efforts. To prove it, the agency will have to provide account numbers and other information detailing the debt and its connection to you.
If your debt is proven to be valid, not all hope is lost. There are still several things you can do to lessen the amount you owe and minimize the damages. Here are a few tips.
Tip #1: Dispute the Amount You Owe
There is a chance that you cannot get out of paying your debt, but that doesn’t mean that you’re on the hook for the full amount the collection agency says you owe. Take a long, hard look at the amount and watch for things like:
- Additional administrative fees and charges
- Interest charges
- Late fees
The only amount you should owe is what you owed to the original lender. Oftentimes collection agencies will tack on additional charges in an attempt to pad their earnings. Don’t fall for that, though. You can usually negotiate those down or eliminate them entirely.
Tip #2: Lowball the Agency With Old Debts
Do you have an old debt that’s still haunting you? Many of us end up with debts that follow us around for years. If a collections agency is hounding you about a debt that’s many years old, don’t be afraid to lowball a settlement offer.
Remember that these agencies purchase debts from the original creditor. They do so at a deeply discounted rate. The original creditor is happy to receive anything at all, and the collections agency banks on being able to get at least the original amount, and sometimes additional fees and charges to sweeten the pot.
Because they bought it at a discount, though, most agencies are willing to negotiate. This is particularly true for a very old debt. Don’t try this with young debt, but if you have a $1,500 bill that’s been kicking around for a decade or so, try to settle for substantially less.
How much less? We’re talking pennies on the dollar. A debt of $1,500 might be settled with a one-time payment of $400 in some cases. You never know unless you try, and even if the agency won’t accept your first offer, they may counteroffer with an amount that you can afford to pay.
Tip #3: Make Your Agreements in Writing
All agreements with collections agencies should be in writing. Never agree to a repayment plan orally. Without something in writing, it’s your word against the agency’s if something goes wrong. This is crucially important – debt collectors are, as a rule, dishonest and more than happy to go back on their word.
If you want a binding agreement that will last longer than a few hours, get it in writing. Never agree to anything over the phone. Insist that before you agree to anything, the collections agency must send the agreement to you in writing.
Tip #4: Check Your Credit Report
Sadly, it is not uncommon for consumers to pay their debt, only to find that the debt collection agency actually sold it again to another one, which is now attempting to collect on the debt again. Check your credit report after paying off any debt and make sure that it’s been removed by all three credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
To get your credit reports for free, check out this article on how to do so here.
If the debt is still on your report, it’s time to file a dispute. Each credit bureau has a different process to follow, and you’ll need to open disputes with each bureau that shows the debt on your report. Provide them with evidence that the debt has been paid and should be discharged.
When the debt finally comes off, your credit score will go up, as well, helping you get on with your life. However, be prepared for a lengthy process. Disputes are rarely settled quickly, so have patience and provide any information that’s required to get things settled.
Dealing with debt collectors is never going to be easy. However, by knowing your rights and holding collections agencies accountable for their behavior, you can at least make the process bearable. Plus, there are strategies that you can use to reduce or even eliminate some parts of the debt.
With a little time and patience, you can get your debt resolved. That will allow you to start rebuilding your financial life and regain your purchasing power.