You can stop a debt collector cold, wherever you live, using federal law.
It doesn’t take a lawyer, a court, or an enforcer.
That’s because the weapons of a debt collector are fear, shame, and annoyance.
The weapon delivery system is communication.
Those weapons don’t have to be any more threatening than a plastic toy pistol, if you understand what’s going on.
To use those emotional weapons, the collector needs to get to you, either by phone or in writing.
They need to stir those negative emotions in the hope of getting you to pay them instead of some other pressing need.
Disarming the debt collector
Turns out, you have a weapon of your own. It’s paper, but it works.
Invoke your legal right to be left alone and you disarm them.
Collectors are functionally weaponless if they can’t reach you.
Afraid to answer the phone
The woman on my phone was petrified about the balance on her husband’s credit card.
A mid life stroke left him in a nursing facility; she was supporting the family singlehandedly. The credit card issuer wrote that she had only 10 days to pay or they’d refer the matter to their attorneys.
Paying the credit card was not a priority for this family at the moment, but the collector had convinced her the world would end if she didn’t pay now.
I proposed a letter of her own: claim the right to be left alone.
Getting collectors to stop
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act has a hidden gem: the right to be left alone.
FDCPA is federal law. It applies to outside collectors for the original creditor. It doesn’t apply to the original creditor using in-house collectors to get you to pay. Except in California.
California doubles down and makes the same right to be left alone apply not just to a third party collector but to the original creditor as well. The law is known as the Rosenthal Act.
Cutting off communication doesn’t make the debt go away. It doesn’t keep the creditor from suing on the debt, if they really want to do so.
It does keep them from ratcheting up those emotions, fear, shame and annoyance, that may lead you to pay the wrong bills first.
Debt collectors make the most money if they can get you to write them a check to go away. It’s much cheaper and faster than suing you.
And verbal intimidation is much less likely to send you scurrying for bankruptcy where they’d likely get nothing.
How to silence collectors
To mute the collector, you must put your demand in writing and send it to the collector.
There are two magic phrases: either “stop communicating with me” or “I refuse to pay“.
Either one, in writing, cuts off the collector’s right to harass you. See 15 USC 1692c(c) and Cal. Civil Code 1788.17
There are a couple of exceptions, things the collector can legally communicate after you send that letter.
- They can tell you their efforts are being terminated.
- They can tell you what kinds of remedies remain available to them.
Remedies if they break the law
There’s no meaningful right if there is no remedy. Sso the law arms you to enforce your rights.
FDCPA creates small but powerful remedies; the Rosenthal Act in California adopts them.
A debt collector who violates the law is liable to the victim for
- Actual damages
- Statutory damages up to $1000
- Attorneys fees and the costs of suit
A successful enforcement action requires that you assemble evidence: a copy of the letter you wrote; a log of collection actions after that letter that violate your rights; and an account of the damages that those violations caused you.
A consumer rights lawyer can help you vindicate your right to be left alone.
What to do when it’s quiet
Once your adrenaline goes down, and you can think about your debts without fear, you can look at the big picture.
- Is your debt problem bigger than this one creditor?
- Is your cash situation likely to change significantly in the near term?
- Are you crippling your budget to pay creditors at the expense of essentials?
- Do you have a financial reserve if there’s an emergency?
If the problem is bigger than the creditor on the phone, see a reputable, non profit credit counselor or an experienced bankruptcy lawyer to explore your options.
Are there alternatives to bankruptcy