How to deal with collection agencies

Falling behind in paying your mortgage, medical bills, or other debts doesn’t give bill collectors the right to hound you. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you against abusive efforts by collection agencies to get you to pay overdue bills. It doesn’t, however, eliminate your debts or stop collectors from using reasonable methods to get paid.

A collection agency can contact you by mail, telephone, telegram, or in person, but not before 8 AM. or after 9 PM unless you allow it. It can’t contact you at your job if your employer disapproves, nor can it tell anyone but you and your lawyer about your debts. A collector can, however, ask others where you live or work.

After you hear from an agency, it must send you within 5 days a written notice of how much you owe, the name of your creditor, and instructions on what to do if you don’t owe the money. You have 30 days to write back if you dispute the debt. This stops further collection efforts unless the agency has a copy of the bill or some other proof of the debt.

If you write the collection agency telling it to stop contacting you, it must do so, but it can take other action, such as a lawsuit. An agency cannot notify you that it will take some other action, however, unless it or your creditor intends to do so.

It’s illegal for a collector to use harassing tactics, such as communicating with you in an obscene manner; threatening your person, property, or reputation; making anonymous or frequent phone calls; or publicizing your debts. Also prohibited are lying about what you owe; implying that you committed a crime; or giving out false credit information about you.

State laws also protect your rights. If you think you’ve been subject to abusive collection efforts, contact the Federal Trade Commission or your state attorney general.