Low wages make it nearly impossible to keep up with the bills. If you are a low-wage worker and have fallen behind financially, you may be getting debt collection calls or letters about medical, cell phone, pay day loan, hospital, or credit card bills, among others. Often, debts get sold and resold and you don’t even recognize the company calling you. Sometimes, you don’t owe the money at all. We hope the information below helps you protect yourself as you navigate the stressful world of debt collection.
How do I know if the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects me?
The first thing you want to know is who is contacting you. Is it the same business from whom you purchased goods, services or a loan or is it a debt collector (someone who purchased the debt or is collecting on behalf of the original seller/lender). If it is a debt collector, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you in many ways. If it is not, you should consult an attorney with your concerns. The information on this page applies only to debt collectors.
What if I don’t recognize the debt?
After a debt collector calls you for the first time, it has five days to mail you a “validation notice.” The validation notice gives you 30 days to dispute the debt in writing and/or seek the name and address of the original creditor.
It is always good to seek validation of the debt, especially if you do not recognize it. If you are not sure whether you owe the debt, you should tell the debt collector you are disputing it. The law prohibits the debt collector from contacting you again until it responds to your request for validation. If you dispute the debt, the law requires the debt collector to send you something demonstrating you owe the money (usually a bill from the original creditor). If you still do not recognize the debt or you do not owe the debt then see the next section.
What if I don’t owe the debt?
Because debt collectors frequently operate without the original account records, it is not uncommon for them to confuse identities or to demand debts that have already been paid. If you believe this has happened to you, you should write the debt collector again (certified mail, return receipt requested) explaining that you have never had the account or that you already paid the debt. If you have proof of payment, include it with your letter.
Make sure to save copies of everything. If the debt collector closes the account, make sure to keep the letter somewhere safe. It is not uncommon for them to sell the account to another debt collector after telling you it has been closed. If the debt collector will not stop or if you are being sued, contact an attorney. If you are a low-wage worker, you can contact our office at no charge.
How can I protect my credit report?
You can obtain your credit report once a year for free from annualcreditreport.com.
We recommend getting your report by phone or mail. Call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
You should obtain your report from the three major reporting bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. If you do not owe the debt and it is appearing on your reports, you should send a dispute to all the credit reporting bureaus. Provide them with any documentation that supports your position. If the credit bureaus do not remove the debt contact an attorney. Low wage workers may contact us free of charge.
What do I do when a debt collector won’t stop calling me or threatening me?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act makes it illegal to call you after 9:00 p.m. and before 8:00 a.m. Debt collectors may not harass you, threaten you with actions they cannot legally take, lie to you or engage in unfair and deceptive practices. If you are being harassed, call a consumer attorney. Low-wage workers can call the Heartland Center free of charge.
Under the law, you can make a debt collector stop contacting you by sending a cease and desist letter. You should know, however, that stopping the calls does not make the debt go away.
What if a debt collector is calling my employer or family?
A debt collector should not be discussing your debt with anyone else. A debt collector can contact others only to seek information about how to reach you. Debt collectors should not repeatedly call others. If you tell a debt collector not to contact your employer, the debt collector is obligated to stop. If you cannot get the debt collector to stop, call an attorney. You may call us free of charge if you are a low-wage worker.
I am being sued by a debt collector
Call a consumer attorney immediately. Low-wage workers may call the Heartland Center for a free consultation. Do not ignore the suit. If you fail to appear, a judgment will be entered against you and your wages and bank account could be garnished.
A debt collector must prove in court that you actually owe the money and that they have a right to collect the debt. Because debt collectors operate with little documentation, they often lack this proof. So if you are being sued, do not assume that you will lose in court.
You may call the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom for a free legal consultation. We are a nonprofit organization that helps low-wage workers access the legal and organizational support they need to protect their rights and connects low-wage workers to consumer rights lawyers when needed. (816) 278-1344.