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Ten tips

Compiled by LAURA T. COFFEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


Know your rights regarding debt collection

If you fall behind in paying back money you owe on credit cards, a home mortgage or a personal loan, it's only a matter of time before you hear from a debt collector. While the law cannot eliminate the debts you owe, it does protect you from being harassed or treated unfairly by debt collectors.

1. Know what's covered. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act covers personal, family and household debts, which would include money owed for medical care, charge accounts or a home or vehicle.

2. Establish boundaries. A debt collector may contact you in person or by mail, telephone, telegram or fax. However, debt collectors need your permission to contact you at inconvenient places or times, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. The collector also may not contact you at work if he or she knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

3. The power of the pen. You can stop a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter telling him or her to stop. After you send the letter, you may be contacted only if the collector or creditor plans to take a specific action regarding your debt, which may include suing you.

4. Insist on privacy. The debt collector must contact you through your attorney if you have one, and in most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney that you owe money. If you don't have an attorney, the collector may contact other people, but only to find out your address, phone number and place of employment.

5. Understand the process. Within five days after you are first contacted, the debt collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount of money you owe, the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money and what action to take if you think you do not owe the money.

6. Know what's prohibited. Debt collectors may not harass or abuse you; use false or misleading statements when dealing with you; send correspondence designed to embarrass you, such as an envelope addressed to "Deadbeat, John Doe"; or send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it is not.

7. Shield yourself from unfair practices. Be aware that debt collectors may not collect an amount greater than the amount you owe, deposit a post-dated check prematurely or trick you into accepting collect calls or paying for telegrams.

8. Turn the tables. You have the right to sue a debt collector in state or federal court if you think he or she has violated the law. If you win, you may recover money for the damages you suffered plus an additional amount up to $1,000.

9. If you feel you've been victimized, file complaints with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (800) HELP-FLA (435-7352) and the Federal Trade Commission toll-free at (877) 382-4357.

10. Avoid debt. If you need help repaying creditors, managing debt or setting up a personal budget, consider contacting a non-profit credit counseling agency that is a member of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit. To find the office nearest you, call (800) 388-2227.

- Sources: Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov); and Florida Statutes (http://www.leg.state.fl.us).

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