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Nine Ways to Stop Debt Collection Harassment

1. Investigate the collector. You may receive calls, emails, or other electronic messages from scammers pretending to be debt collectors. Do not make any payments unless you are sure that the collector is legitimate.

If the suspicious party has reached you by phone, ask for the caller’s name, company, phone number, and business address. Simply asking these questions may discourage a phony debt collector from contacting you again.

If the suspicious party contacts you electronically, do not click on any links or open any attachments to electronic messages from senders that you do not know to avoid phishing attacks or potential computer viruses.

You can also check to see if your state licenses debt collectors and if the company that is contacting you is licensed. If your state does not license debt collectors, check the registry for a neighboring state. Some states also provide licensing information to the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System at www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org. That website will thus provide a few more states where the debt collector might be licensed.

2. The “stop contact” or “cease” letter. One strategy to stop collection harassment is to write the collector a “stop contact” letter, also called a “cease” letter. Then the collector can only acknowledge the letter and notify you about legal steps the collector may take. This protection usually only applies to collection agencies hired by the creditor or debt buyers that purchased debts from the creditor, but even creditors collecting their own debts may honor such requests.

Important: Ceasing collection communications will not change whether you owe the debt.

Below is a sample letter, also found ready for editing at www.nclc.org/survivingdebt:

[Your name]

[Your return address]

[Date]

[Debt collector name]

[Debt collector address]

Re: [Account number for the debt, if you have it]

Dear [Debt collector name],

I am responding to your contact about an alleged debt you are attempting to collect. You contacted me by [phone/mail/email], on [date]. You identified the alleged debt as [any information they gave you about the debt].

Please stop all communication with me and with this address about this alleged debt.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

Keep a copy of the letter and send the original by mail, return receipt requested. You can also send cease letters electronically using any type of electronic communication that the debt collector uses to accept consumer communications. In other words, if the collection agency accepts emails from consumers, you can send cease letters via email.

If a debt collector still continues to contact you, send another letter or electronic message and once again keep a copy. Let them know that you are aware that they are violating the federal law by continuing to contact you. Keep a careful record of any communications you receive after sending the letter, which will be helpful if you sue the debt collector for violating your federal rights.

You do not need a lawyer to send a cease letter. However, if a cease letter does not stop collection calls, a letter from a lawyer usually will. Collection agencies must stop contacting a consumer known to be represented by a lawyer, as long as the lawyer responds to the collection agency’s inquiries. Even though this requirement does not apply to creditors collecting their own debts, these creditors usually honor such requests from a lawyer. A collector’s lawyer is bound by legal ethics not to contact you if you are represented by a lawyer.

3. Stopping only certain types of collection contacts. Instead of stopping all types of collection communication, you may only want to stop some types of contacts and allow others.

Debt collectors must comply with consumer requests to stop using a particular type of communication—for example, a request to stop calling or stop emailing. The collector must also comply with requests concerning communications to a particular phone number, email address, or other electronic account. Unlike a cease communication letter, this does not stop all types of communications.

You can stop communications from collection agencies at inconvenient times or places by telling a live operator that the contacts are inconvenient. For example, you could say:

“I am not allowed to receive this type of call at work [or calls at work are inconvenient]. Please stop calling me at work.”

“Please don’t call me before noon. Morning calls are not convenient.”

Alternatively, you can tell a collector exactly when and how you would like to be contacted. For example:

“Please only contact me at [phone number] after [time]. Calls at other times and numbers are not convenient.”

Electronic communications from debt collectors are required to include instructions for how you can opt out of receiving that type of electronic communications. For example, an email from a debt collector must include instructions about how you can opt out of future emails to that email address. As noted above, be careful about clicking on any links. You can always call or send a letter to request that the collector stop using electronic communication.

You do not have to put these requests in writing. However, if you would like to do so, you can change the last line of the letter above to tell the collector how you would like to be contacted. For example:

Please stop all communications by email and text message. You can call me after 5:00

P.M. at 212-555-1212.

4. The “exempt income” letter. If your only sources of income are state or federal government benefits, your income may be “exempt” or protected from collection. (See Chapter 21 for more information about whether your income is exempt.) If you inform the collector that government benefits are your only source of income, the collector may voluntarily stop contacting you about the alleged debt.

You can inform collectors over the phone if all of your income is exempt, and you can also send a letter like this one, also found ready for editing at www.nclc.org/survivingdebt:

[Your name]

[Your return address]

[Date]

[Debt collector name]

[Debt collector address]

Re: [Account number for the debt, if you have it]

Dear [Debt collector name],

I am responding to your contact about an alleged debt you are attempting to collect. You contacted me by [phone/mail/email], on [date]. You identified the alleged debt as [any information they gave you about the debt].

I am living on _______________/month which comes from [name of government benefit(s)]. I believe that all of my income is exempt from collection and creditors may not garnish these payments.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

You may want to ask in the letter or a separate letter that the debt collector stop contacting you—see earlier in this chapter for a sample stop contact or “cease” letter. You may also want to specify certain types of contacts that you do not want to receive as discussed in item 3 above. Keep a copy of any letters that you send. It is best to send the letter by mail, return receipt requested.

5. The “dispute” letter. If you do not think the debt is yours, think that the amount is incorrect, or believe that there is some other type of error, you should send the collector a dispute letter. Collectors make a lot of mistakes, and disputing the debt may help resolve the matter.

Federal law requires debt collectors to provide “validation information” about the alleged debt and your rights to dispute it. Collectors will be able to provide this information orally, electronically, or via a written letter. While collectors are unlikely to provide the lengthy notice orally, they may choose to deliver these notices electronically. If a debt collector claims to have sent a notice previously but you never received it, ask for another copy.

If you send a dispute within thirty days of receiving this validation information from the third-party collector, the debt collector must stop collection contacts until they send you more information verifying the debt. Debt collectors have to specify a response date, but even if you miss this deadline, you can still raise disputes after this initial dispute period has passed.

Here is a sample letter, also found ready for editing at www.nclc.org/survivingdebt:

[Your name]

[Your return address]

[Date]

[Debt collector name]

[Debt collector address]

Re: [Account number for the debt, if you have it]

Dear [Debt collector name],

I am responding to your contact about collecting an alleged debt. You contacted me by [phone/mail/email], on [date] and identified the alleged debt as [any information they gave you about the debt]. [Explain what you are disputing. For example, “I am not responsible for the debt you’re trying to collect.” Or “The amount that you are seeking to collect is incorrect.”]

Please record this dispute. If you stop your collection of this debt, and forward or return it to another company, please indicate to them that it is disputed. If you report it to a credit bureau (or have already done so), also report that the debt is disputed.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

Keep a copy of any letters that you send. It is best to send the letter by mail, return receipt requested. You can also send dispute letters electronically using any type of electronic communication that the debt collector uses to accept consumer communications. In other words, if the collection agency accepts emails from consumers, you can send dispute letters via email.

You may want to combine a dispute with a request for more information. See the sample letter found at item #6, below.

6. The “verification” letter. Often it is not even clear what debt a collector is contacting you about, and, in that case, you should not pay the collector, at least not until you obtain more information.

As discussed in item 5, above, federal law requires debt collectors to provide “validation information” about the alleged debt. However, you may still have more questions about the alleged debt.

This sample letter outlines some of the different types of additional information you might request about the debt—you typically do not need to ask for all this information. The letter is also found ready for editing at www.nclc.org/survivingdebt:

[Your name]

[Your return address]

[Date]

[Debt collector name]

[Debt collector address]

Re: [Account number for the debt, if you have it]

Dear [Debt collector name]:

I am responding to your contact about an alleged debt you are trying to collect. You contacted me by [phone/mail/email], on [date] and identified the alleged debt as [any information they gave you about the debt].

Please supply the information below so that I can be fully informed about the alleged debt:

Why you think I owe the debt and to whom I owe it, including:

  • ● The name and address of the creditor to whom the alleged debt is currently owed.
  • ● The name and address of the original creditor and any other names used.
  • ● A copy of the original contract or other agreement.
  • ● The name of any other person that is or was required to pay the alleged debt.

The amount and age of the debt, including:

  • ● Provide a copy of the last billing statement sent to me by the original creditor.
  • ● State the amount of the alleged debt when you obtained it.
  • ● State the date when you obtained the alleged debt.
  • ● Provide an itemized list of any alleged interest, fees, or charges since the last billing statement from the original creditor.
  • ● Provide a copy of any agreement expressly authorizing such interest, fees, or additional charges.
  • ● Provide an itemization showing any payments since the last billing statement from the original creditor.
  • ● State when the creditor claims this debt became due and when it became delinquent.
  • ● Identify the date of the last payment made on this account.
  • ● State when you think the statute of limitations expires for this debt, and how you determined that.

Details about your authority to collect this debt, including:

  • ● Provide the number of any license to collect debt in [insert name of the state where you live] and the name of the issuing agency.
  • ● Provide the number of any license to collect debt in the state where you are located and the name of the issuing agency.

Please treat this debt as disputed until you provide the information requested.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

Keep a copy of any letters that you send. It is best to send the letter by mail, return receipt requested. You may want to combine this with a dispute letter. See the sample letter found at item #5, above. As discussed above, it is best to send the letter within thirty days of receipt of the validation information.

7. Negotiating work-out agreements. Too often consumers respond to debt harassment by agreeing to make payments to the collector. You should not pay even a little on a credit card, medical, or other unsecured debt if doing so means that you become delinquent on high priority expenses like your rent, payments for a car that you need to get to work, or essential family expenses like food or medicine.

Be wary of making a partial payment on old debts. You cannot be sued on a debt that is a certain number of years old (depending on your state). In some states, if you make even a small payment on an old bill or acknowledge the debt, courts may treat this as starting the time period over again, and you can then be sued on the debt only because you made that payment.

Beware of debt settlement companies that promise to negotiate with the creditor on your behalf. These companies typically take large fees and often produce far less than promised.

Drive a hard bargain on any payment plan you agree to—ask them to reduce the debt. Be careful not to agree to pay more than you can afford. If you’re uncomfortable negotiating on your own, ask a social worker, trusted friend, or relative to help you. Get any deal in writing. Some collectors may be willing to negotiate to remove items from your credit report once you have paid as agreed.

Determine, after reviewing Chapter 21, below, if you are judgment-proof. Being judgment proof means that if the creditor sues you, that creditor will not be able to seize your income or property because they are all exempt under your state law. If you are judgment-proof, offer the creditor little or nothing and just say that it is not worth pursuing you since you are judgment-proof. Also tell them to stop contacting you. See the sample letters at items #2 and #4, above.

8. Complaining to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Send a complaint about a debt collector to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint. The agency will forward your complaint to the debt collector and work to get you a response, usually within fifteen days. You can also complain to the consumer protection division of your state attorney general’s office. Some states offer mediation services for consumer disputes.

9. Bankruptcy. Filing your initial papers for personal bankruptcy instantly triggers the “automatic stay” that stops all collection activity against you. As a rule, a bankruptcy filing does not make sense where your only concern is debt harassment since you can stop the harassment with a cease contact letter (see item #2, above). Save the bankruptcy option for when you have serious financial problems. For this reason, be wary of an attorney offering to file bankruptcy for you if the only problem is debt harassment.