Stopping debt collectors after they cross the line

Posted Nov. 07, 2010, at 10:23 p.m.

Q: A collection agency is bombarding me with calls at work, at home and even during my daughter’s soccer games. The caller has a voice like a Skilsaw cutting sheet metal; she makes insulting remarks, and when she’s done I feel “this” big. What can I do about this?

A: Since the onset of the recession, record numbers of people have been unable to pay their bills, and collection agencies are finding it harder to collect. They keep up the pressure hoping to make you rob Peter to pay a credit card.

Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, can be your sword and your shield when debt collectors go too far.

• Calling you dozens of times a day is illegal harassment.

• If your boss does not allow personal calls at work, tell the debt collector. Further calls to you at work are illegal.

• Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. is illegal. The law still protects people who work at night because waking you during your hours of rest is harassment.

• Insulting remarks, obscene language or any words that a reasonable person would find abusive are illegal. A statement like, “Is this what you do all the time — charge something and then don’t pay?” is not obscene or even harshly worded, but it implies you are dishonest. That is abusive and therefore illegal.

If you have an attorney, you can make the calls stop by giving the caller the attorney’s name and number. Do this and the debt collector must stop. It is not just the abusive calls that must stop but also the polite and legal ones.

If you do not have an attorney, a letter from you can put a stopper in the collector’s calls. Send the collection agency a letter instructing them to stop. Be sure to send it by certified mail, return receipt requested. This will stop the abusive calls as well as the legal ones.

But there is a downside to stopping the calls; a debt collector who cannot call is free to take the next step, which could be a lawsuit.

Note there are two important limits to the FDCPA.

• First, it does not apply to companies trying to collect their own debts. This means banks, credit card companies and other lenders can’t be stopped from calling. There is an exception to this rule: debt buyers, which buy bad debts and try to collect them, are covered because their only business is collecting — not lending.

• Second, business debts are not covered. The FDCPA applies only to debts for personal, family or household purposes. This includes car loans, home loans, credit cards and utility bills and others.

If the calls continue despite your attempts to stop them, Maine law puts powerful tools in your hands.

• Maine residents can lodge a complaint with the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. The bureau can yank the debt collector’s license. Collection agencies must have a license to operate in Maine, and when you endanger that license, you have them by the sensitive parts.

• You can also hire a lawyer and sue. If you win, the judge can award you damages and order the debt collector to pay your legal fees.

• There is also a federal FDCPA that allows you to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The FDCPA is a terrific legal tool for consumers.

It is always a good idea to consult with a lawyer who deals with consumer law before taking legal action.

This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine, 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.

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