There is an animal called the Cookiecutter Shark that attaches itself to other fish and then neatly takes out a chunk of flesh using its band saw-like set of lower teeth. You could also describe a debt collector much like this. They have about the same sort of tenacity and their one and only goal in life is to excise a chunk of money out of you.
Unfortunately, in this era of identity theft and data breaches it’s more than possible that these Cookiecutter shark-like debt collectors could get your name by mistake. Your home mailing address and your phone number could get attached to debt collection notices, court records and other documents that were actually intended for some debtor who had a similar name as yours. As a result, you could be getting countless phone calls from collection agencies at all hours of the day. You may be mailed legal looking documents requiring your appearance in court. In a worst-case scenario you could even have a County Sheriff at your doorstep waiting for you to arrive home so he could serve you with papers over some alleged past-due alimony payments.
If this happens to you
If you’re being harassed in error by a debt collector the first thing you need to do is call the agency, explain the error and ask that your contact information be deleted from its file. The problem is that this may not be your last conversation with a bill collector. In fact, the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report last year about complaints against debt collectors. It turned out that the top source of complaints was about them trying to collect from the wrong people. In fact, about 25% of the complaints received by the CFPB involved mistaken identities that were followed by harassing phone calls.
Don’t ignore it
If you do or have received a phone call from a collection agency where you’ve been targeted in error, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. You need to follow up immediately with the collector. The important thing is to not tell that person you want to dispute the account but that this is clearly a complaint about mistaken identity. If your phone call with the collector seems unsatisfactory, then ask to speak to that person’s supervisor. Always take note of any conversation and get all names and direct phone numbers. Be sure to keep any paperwork you receive. Having a paper trail will be essential if you continue to have a problem.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the old adage about honey attracting more flies than vinegar. This definitely holds true when talking to a debt collector or his supervisor. Be calm and civil during your phone conversation. Losing your temper does no more good than trying to attract flies with vinegar. Also, keep in mind that debt collection can be a very tough business and honest mistakes can be made.
File a complaint
State and federal laws regulate collection agencies. You can always file a complaint with the federal Consumer Protection Bureau. While this may not help in the short term it will at least put that collection agency on notice. And if it gets enough of these complaints it might change its ways.
If it turns out the debt is really yours
Were human, too, and we make mistakes. If it turns out that the debt is really yours it’s important for you to know what the debt collector can and cannot do. For example, it’s not allowed to call you early in the morning or late at night. It’s also barred from contacting your employer without your permission. He or she also cannot falsely claim to be an attorney or law enforcement official, talk to anyone but you or your attorney about your debt or threaten to sue you unless the collection agency really intends to take legal action against you.
If you are receiving repeated phone calls from a debt collector or if he or she is calling you at work, there is a way to stop this. You will need to send the agency what’s called a cease and desist letter. You can find an example of this letter by clicking on this link. This link will take you to a webpage where you will not only find a sample letter but also a short video explaining the letter and why you should use the template. If you choose to send the collection agency one of these letters it’s important to mail it registered and return receipt requested so that if necessary you can prove you sent the letter.
What happens next?
Once a debt collection agency receives your cease and desist letter it is allowed by law to contact you just once more. This is to either tell you that it will no longer be contacting you or that it intends to take some legal action against you. Of course, a debt collection agency can continue to contact you even after you send a cease and desist letter and many of the worst ones will. If this happens, your best recourse may be to sue the agency. The law allows what are called statuary damages at $1000 per case (not per violation) and you might also be able to get actual damages. And as noted above, you can also file a complaint against the agency with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Get your credit reports
The best way to protect yourself against identity theft and being erroneously targeted by debt collection agencies is to get and review your credit reports on a regular basis. The law requires the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) to provide you with your credit reports free once a year. There is also the website www.annualcreditreport.com where you could get all three of your credit reports simultaneously – but again just once a year. Most experts say the best way to get credit reports is one at a time at a four-month interval. If you do this you will be able to monitor your credit year-round at no cost.
If you find errors
When you review your credit reports you need to look carefully for errors. This could be charges you don’t remember making or the names of companies with whom you don’t remember ever doing business. If you find one of these errors on a credit report you must dispute it with the credit bureau. All three have forms on their websites specifically for this purpose. However, most experts say it’s better to do the dispute in writing via a letter. When the credit bureau receives your letter it’s required by law to contact the company or institution that provided the information and ask that it be verified. If it can’t be verified or if the institution or company fails to respond within 30 days the credit bureau is required to remove the item from your file. And it’s a good idea to do a follow-up after a month or two to make sure that the item was actually deleted.