When Debt Collectors Call, DON’T Hang Up
I just read a personal finance advice piece on Reuters.com that gave, in my opinion, stunningly BAD personal finance advice. The piece was titled “When Debt Collectors Call, Hang Up”.
The author of the piece tells how his 80-year-old father began getting phone calls from a debt collector in error (not his debt), so the writer tells his dad it is probably a scam and to just hang up. His dad follows this advice, and eventually, the calls stop. Voila! Success, according to the author of the article.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was a scam. Or maybe the collector stopped calling and is preparing to file a lawsuit. Or maybe his dad has problems with his hearing now from all the incessant ringing of the calls he didn’t answer. Who knows?
The article actually goes on to give some very good, easy-to-understand information about what debt collectors can and cannot do, and some good, basic advice on the first steps to take when being harassed by debt collectors.
But I just can’t get over the bad general advice in the title of the article: When Debt Collectors Call, Hang Up…
No, no, NO!
You, the consumer, should not have to live in fear of your telephone. Period.
* You, the consumer, should not race to your caller ID and then agonize over whether or not to answer an unknown number.
* You, the consumer, should not change your telephone number to get a little peace and quiet.
* You, the consumer, should not “just hang up.”
So what should you do?
Be methodical. Be strategic. Be aggressive in defending YOUR RIGHTS.
The scenario below is for those of you who literally cringe when you hear your phone ring. For those of you who let every unknown number call go to voice mail. I know why you do this– I sue debt collectors for a living. I sue debt collectors that have been abusing consumers by doing things like:
* calling too many times each day
* calling at crazy hours of the morning and night
* calling and pretending to be “the authorities” (yeah, I’m talking to you, “Agent Hinton”.)
* threatening and abusing consumers by telephone
So I know what you may be going through that would drive you to just stop answering the telephone. Nobody wants to deal with that. But these calls are not going to magically go away. There is an alternative. I’ll say it again:
Be methodical. Be strategic. Be aggressive in defending YOUR RIGHTS. And if you are dealing with abusive debt collectors, turn the tables and sue them with the help of a consumer attorney.
What I’ve written below is certainly not legal advice. It’s an example of what might happen if you do pick up the phone. It’s encouragement to reverse your current behavior of avoidance, and replace it with empowerment. Because every debt collector is not going to employ abusive tactics. But by hanging up or not answering, you’re going to remain on their call list…..mmmmmm…..probably FOREVER. Once a day or more, like clockwork, your phone is going to ring. By answering the phone, you would:
* perhaps gain information (which empowers you)
* perhaps end the calls from some debt collectors that decide, based on a brief conversation, that it isn’t worth calling back. (yes, this does happen)
* gather valuable information that will aid you in working with a consumer attorney if you are being harassed.
First step: Answer the phone. DON’T HANG UP!
A legitimate debt collector will say something like:
“May I speak to [name]?”
Consumer can say, “This is [name].” (If consumer is the person they are asking for, that is.)
Consumer will then (ideally) receive a disclaimer statement announcing that the call is an attempt to collect a debt. So far, so good. No need to stress, or hang up, right?
Next, a legitimate, by-the-book debt collector will state in some reasonable way:
* who they are
* what they are calling about, with specifics
* what they want, in specifics
Consumers need to write these specifics down on a piece of paper, preferably a Call Log that is kept by the telephone, especially if a lot of debt collectors are calling. Next to this information, write down the time of the call. If the debt collector was speaking quickly, or consumer wasn’t able to hear all the information rattled off, ask them to repeat it, slowly. A legitimate, by-the-book debt collector will.
Second step: You are going to have to say something to them. DON’T HANG UP!
Don’t get upset. Don’t freak out. I can’t tell unknown consumers exactly what to say, because I don’t know the specifics of their situations, and I don’t know their personal objectives.
* Maybe the consumer knows the debt they are talking about.
* Maybe the consumer has no clue what they are talking about and is sure they have made an error.
* Maybe it’s a small debt that the consumer overlooked, and actually wants to pay.
* Maybe the consumer knows the debt is owed and has no intention of paying it.
Regardless, what is said next depends on the consumer’s specific situation: “I don’t know this debt you’re calling about.” or “I cannot pay this debt at this time.” Or, say nothing, and skip directly to Step Three.
If there are questions about the debt, this is the time to ask them. A legitimate, by-the-book debt collector will answer your questions as best as he/she is able. This is the time for consumers to ASK questions, NOT ANSWER THEM. If the answer to your question is a question, move on to Step Three.
A very, very important note: Do not give “numbers” over the phone. Ever. Do not give your bank account number, checking account number, credit or debit card number, social security number, ANY NUMBER to a debt collector over the phone for ANY REASON.
Third step: The Cease and Desist. DON’T HANG UP!
Next, the consumer should quickly and politely tell the debt collector to stop calling, if that is what is desired. Understand that when a debt collector honors a request to “cease and desist”, the debt does not go away, just the phone calls. The debt might be tagged for a lawsuit instead. If an end to the phone calls is desired, state very clearly, something like: “Stop calling me. Cease and desist. Do not call me again.”
Make a note on the Call Log that debt collector was asked to CEASE AND DESIST. Heck, make a note of the exact time that those words were said, if possible.
Fourth step: Don’t Answer Questions. Don’t Argue. Don’t Explain Yourself.
At this point, the debt collector, even the most legitimate debt collector, will probably try to quickly engage the consumer in conversation, keep the consumer on the phone, ask some questions, or get more information. Expect it. It is their job. Many consumer attorneys would suggest that for protection, it is best to end the conversation here. Do not answer questions. Do not argue. Do not admit to the debt. Do not explain yourself. Do not let them upset you with their words. Breathe a sigh of relief, because now it is time to HANG UP!
If you want to keep it high class, feel free to say goodbye before HANGING UP. But you don’t have to. As long as the CEASE AND DESIST from the third step is clearly communicated, feel free to HANG UP.
Fifth step: Note on your Call Log the time that you HUNG UP.
There. You are now officially an Empowered Consumer, exercising your rights and not living in fear of your telephone. Unfortunately, the debt collector is probably going to call back. For some very cautious debt collectors, the words “Cease and Desist” might be magic words that get remove a consumer from the call list. But chances are, even legitimate debt collectors are going to call back to try and collect their debt. Like I said–it’s their job. But now that you’ve seen an example of how a collection call can proceed peacefully and rapidly, I encourage you to continue answering the telephone and making specific notes on your Call Log EVERY TIME.
If you’ve been living in fear of your phone for a while, you have no idea if you are being called by legitimate debt collectors, or by abusive debt collectors in violation of the FDCPA. By engaging them, and making detailed notes on a call log, and saving all voice mail messages, you will be able to explain your situation(s) to a consumer lawyer in your area, and you will have the notes to confirm your stories. A qualified consumer lawyer will know if your interaction with debt collectors is legally considered harassment, or a violation of the FDCPA, and will advise you on how to proceed. If you are being harassed by a debt collector, you can turn the tables and sue the debt collector. Keep in mind that if your conversation with the debt collector is wildly different from the sample scenario I gave you above, there is a good chance that the debt collector is violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
(And please–if your elderly father is getting harassment calls from a debt collector, please don’t tell him to just hang up. Be a pal and gauge the true level of harassment–because it can get very bad–and if necessary, contact and accompany him to a local consumer attorney. Don’t forget about what happened to this old guy.)