By BILL GEPHARDT, Deseret News
It's something most people dread: a call from the bill collector.
Federal regulators say they are getting tired of complaints about debt collectors. Thousands of people say they're being harassed for money they don't owe. Many others complain of aggressive tactics that can include abusive language.
Even if you've fallen behind on payments, debt collection agencies must follow laws and rules, and you do have rights, as Sherman Hairup discovered.
He said he was surprised by a notice he got from a debt collection agency out of Florida saying he owed them $128. But a bigger surprise came a little later, when he called the agency to find out what it was about.
"That's all he said it was, insurance. I asked him what kind of insurance and he didn't tell me," Hairup said.
He said he wasn't about to pay someone $128 without more details.
"I asked him a few questions and he got riled, started literally screaming over me, over the phone," he said.
Hairup said the man's screaming got louder as he threatened to send attorneys after him. Hairup hung up the phone when he couldn't get a word in between the yells and threats. Now, Hairup wonders if he was dealing with a scammer.
"A legitimate, professional company, they certainly wouldn't act that way," he said.
At least they shouldn't. But that's exactly who Hairup was dealing with: a legitimate debt collection agency.
We contacted a professional debt collector to find out what they can and cannot say to people who owe them money.
"You need to help the consumer," said Michelle Camp, general manager of Express Recovery Services in West Valley City, Utah. "You're not going to get anything resolved if you don't help the consumer."
Camp said she's been in the debt collections business for 25 years. She said an agency's best interest is to be friendly and help people resolve problems.
"You are required to not harass them. Harassing someone is against the law," she explained.
Debt collection agencies fall under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, she said. That law states that agents have to tell consumers that they're a bill collector. Once on the line, they can't use obscene, profane or abusive language. And it's illegal for them to threaten action, such as sending an attorney, if they don't intend to do it.
"It pretty much comes down to telling the truth to the consumer. So, if you say something's going to take place, then that needs to take place. Otherwise, you've violated the law," she said.
Consumers don't have to put up with harassment or abuse. They can hang up on the abusive agent. And they have the right to send a letter to a collection agency, telling them to stop contact. It's legally binding, but Camp cautions it could have negative impact if consumers say, "I'm done. I don't want to talk to you any more."
"In a situation where potentially there could be legal action, you kind of tie the collector's hands at that point because they can't try to call you to resolve it," she said.
Camp said they're better off asking for a supervisor to see if they can handle the call any better.
Hairup also couldn't figure out why he owed money. Camp said consumers have a right to request validation.
"You have the right to request validation. You can send a letter to the agency and say, ‘I don't understand what the bill is. I dispute this. I need to see documentation.' And they can't contact you again until they provide you with that information," she said.
We spoke to the president of the debt collection agency that contacted Hairup. She defended her agent, saying they've never known him to be abusive or even to raise his voice.
Camp said a good resource when dealing with debt collectors is askdoctordebt.com.