Ask an expert: Dealing with debt collectors

A: Carefully. Debt collectors are tough-as-nails negotiators with lots of experience and boatloads of determination. They make their living from commissions they earn on your debt payments, so it pays for them to be persistent.

Your best first step, if you’ve fallen behind in paying a creditor and feel you’re about to be the subject of a visit, is to learn your rights. A collector can only contact you at reasonable times of day (i.e., not before eight a.m. or after nine p.m.). And he or she can’t bug you at work if you’ve indicated that’s unacceptable. You can hang up the phone on a debt collector, or insist that all future contact be in writing. In any case, he or she must produce a written notice that details the particulars of the debt he or she is trying to collect within five days of his or her first contact with you.

It is possible to negotiate with a debt collector. If you simply cannot meet his or her demands, offer to pay what you can afford. Don’t get emotional, and try not to let his or her very practiced displays of persuasion throw you off course. Take notes and even consider taping the phone calls (in some states, you must reveal to the collector that you’re doing so). Once you’ve struck a deal, write up the details and send a copy to him or her to sign.

If you believe you’ve been approached in error, you must respond to the initial demand for repayment within 30 days with a letter stating that you do not, in fact, owe the money. Send it by certified mail so you have confirmation of its receipt. The onus is then on the collector to forward proof of your debt.

Debt collectors are prohibited from acting in a harassing manner. They can’t swear, threaten you or make false claims about you. If you feel a debt collector has violated these rules, or broken the law, you should report him or her to your state Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. You can also sue him or her.

The National Consumer Law Center has produced a brochure for consumers, What You Should Know About Debt Collection. To get a free copy, call its Publications Department at (617) 542-9595. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act outlines a code of behavior for debt collectors chasing down personal, family and household debt money.


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