Debt Collector Threats: Understand the Law
Debt collection calls are never pleasant, but things decidedly take a turn for the worse when a debt collector begins to threaten you. It’s always important to understand the law, but is arguably never more important than when you feel you’re under fire from a debt collector.
While some states have debt collection statutes, the most important law you need to know about is the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The Act outlines tactics and behaviors that are unacceptable when it comes to bill collecting, and provides consumers with recourse if their rights have been violated.
When it comes to debt collector threats, the FDCPA is very clear. Essentially, it says that bill collectors can’t make threats that they don’t intend to carry out or that they’re prohibited from carrying out. One of the most obvious illegal threats is threatening to have you arrested or thrown in jail. Owing a debt is not a criminal offense, and you cannot be arrested for owing money. If a bill collector threatens arrest or jail, he is in clear violation of the FDCPA.
Another all-too-common threat is that the collection agency will take away your car or your home. While it’s true that your home can be foreclosed upon if you don’t make your mortgage payments and that your car can be repossessed if you don’t make your car payments, most other types of debt are unsecured. Credit card debt, utility debt, medical bills, and so forth are not secured by any real property like real estate or a vehicle. This means that those things can’t be taken away by a debt collector.
Frequently, a bill collector will threaten to file a lawsuit against someone. You should know that many debt collection agencies do, in fact, file lawsuits against consumers. If you are served with court papers, it’s important that you appear in court to explain your situation; if you don’t, the collector can obtain a default judgment against you, which he can then use to file for wage garnishment or to seize money from your bank account.
However, some debt collection agencies threaten lawsuits when they have no intention of filing a lawsuit. If this is the case, then they are in violation of the FDCPA. You may not know whether or not they are serious, but an attorney who has experience with the FDCPA would know. If the agency has not sued other consumers in the past, chances are good that it was an empty threat, and the agency should be held accountable.
Similarly, some agencies may threaten to garnish your wages. If they make that threat, but don’t clarify that they first must file a lawsuit and then obtain a judgment and a garnishment order, then they are likely violating the FDCPA.
If you’ve been a victim of debt collector threats, you should speak with an attorney. Once you have an attorney, the collector can only speak with your attorney, so you will no longer receive threatening phone calls. In addition, the FDCPA says that, if a collector has violated the law, you may be entitled to up to $1,000, along with attorney fees and court costs. Because the collection agency is responsible for your legal fees, you shouldn’t have to pay a dime.
Sergei Lemberg, Esq. is the Principal of Lemberg & Associates, a law firm practicing fair debt collection law, lemon law, and other consumer law.
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