How to Get Debt Collectors Off Your Back

Money, Rights

creditor callsIf you owe money and can’t pay, you may be hearing from debt collectors. Every letter, every phone call from an unknown number is another source of anxiety. Know your rights and what you can do to help yourself in this situation.

Tell Third-Party Creditors to Stop Calling You

The first thing to figure out is who is contacting you. If it’s someone other than the original creditor, like a debt collector, then you should know your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The FDCPA was specifically created to protect people from abuse, harassment, and deception at the hands of debt collectors. In simple language, here’s the Federal Trade Commission’s description of what debt collectors can and can’t do.

To get them to stop contacting you, all you have to do is put it in writing. Tell the collector that you wish them to cease further communication with you on the issue. Send this letter by certified mail so you can prove they received it. Quote the law and tell them that if they don’t stop, you’ll complain to the FTC and/or attorney general. The FTC receives several thousand such complaints every year.

State Laws Regulate Original Creditors

On the other hand, if you’re being contacted by the original creditor–say, a credit card company–then federal law won’t help you. You’ve got to look at the statutes in your state regarding debt collection practices. Many of these laws follow the FDCPA closely and prohibit collectors from contacting you at inconvenient hours, from calling you at work if your employer tells them to stop, and from using abusive and profane language.

Still, you’ll have to work a little harder to stop an original creditor. First, keep detailed records. If the problem is an excessive number of phone calls, especially if they are at inconvenient times (usually between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.), write down the date and time of every call. A collector is usually prohibited from calling your friends and relatives, so keep records on those calls, too. And always write down any abusive language used.

Next, threaten to sue them for this behavior, and tell them you’ve got records that show they broke the law. Sue them for harassment if it still doesn’t stop. You can take them to small claims court, or you can hire an attorney for advice on what to do next.

Make a Plan to Pay Your Debts – Or Not

Unless you believe that you do not owe this debt (in which case you should dispute it), you’re going to have to deal with it eventually. Even if you successfully make the phone calls disappear, it’s sadly not as easy to make the debt disappear. At some point, you’ll have to figure out whether you really can pay it back or not.

If you simply cannot pay, it’s time to look into bankruptcy. Yes, bankruptcy doesn’t look great on your credit report, but sometimes it’s the smartest option. But if you can pay, even if it’s just a small amount, do it. Paying a little bit regularly shows that you are trying and that you intend to pay the debt eventually; this might prevent them from suing you for the full amount. Be polite to the collector and try to come up with a plan that works for you both. This is often easier with original creditors, but is worth trying with third-party collectors, too.

For more information, read more in Avvo’s bankruptcy and debt section.