My daughter is only 12, but she already knows a lot about dealing with debt collectors. Several times a week she gets debt collection calls for the person who previously had her cell phone number.
Some of the callers are polite and tell her they will remove her number from their records. In other cases, the call is a recorded message and it’s impossible to speak to someone unless she chooses the recorded option, “Press 1 if you are (the debtor).”
One particularly frustrating series of calls came from a collector who was trying to collect a small debt—just under $12—for Blockbuster. The recorded message left no option other than to pay the debt by phone. After several attempts to stop the calls, I finally contacted Blockbuster’s public relations department. Someone there put me in touch with the collection agency, who then assured me they would change their answering system to include an option to tell the collector they have the wrong person.
I know my daughter isn’t alone on this. When my sister moved a couple of years ago, and got a new phone number, she received so many calls from collectors for the phone number’s previous owner that she finally ended up canceling that number and getting a new one.
So what can you do if, like my daughter or sister, you are getting debt collection calls for someone else? I spoke with two attorneys to find out. Cindy Salvo is a partner in The Salvo Law Firm and her clients are debt collectors. I also spoke with Brandon Block, a consumer attorney in private practice in California. He represents consumers in debt collection cases.
What rights do consumers have if they are getting calls from a debt collector for someone else?
Salvo says, “My clients are really trying to just collect debts from people who owe them. There’s no benefit to them to keep calling the wrong person. If you tell them, they will stop.” She recommends trying to get someone on the phone and asking them to remove your number from their records.
But what if that doesn’t work? Block explains that many of the rights provided by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act are afforded to “any person,” and not just the person who owes the debt. If the collector is calling about a debt that belongs to someone else, the person receiving the calls can sue for actual damages, statutory damages and his or her attorney’s fees.
He also points out that state laws may provide additional rights. In California, for example, the recipient of the calls may be able to sue the debt collector and original creditor under California’s Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Salvo has another suggestion: ask the debt collector for the company’s fax number or email address. “If the calls don’t stop right away, the person being called can email or fax the collector the first page of their phone bill—showing the phone number the collector just called, and the name of the person on the bill (not the debtor). That could be very convincing.”
What if there is no information available about how to contact the collection agency placing the calls (for example, when a debt collector refuses to provide that information, or if the recorded message does not include it)?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires a debt collector who contacts someone other than the consumer to identify himself, state that he is confirming or correcting location information concerning the consumer, and, only if expressly requested, identify his employer. But recorded messages from debt collectors can be tricky, as there is still some debate about how much information collectors can or should leave on answering machines.
“This is a real problem,” says Block, who has run into this situation with some of his clients. He says the best thing to do is to try to get the number from which the collector is calling, generally through caller ID. It may then be possible to trace the number, either online or through use of a private investigator. If that isn’t possible, your phone company may be able to help. If all efforts fail, Block suggests providing a copy of the message to the Attorney General’s office and the FTC. “If there are any threats of arrest or government intervention, the messages can be provided to your local police department, US Attorney and/or FBI office as well, though I have seen a decreasing interest in these issues by law enforcement.”
The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you the right to tell a debt collector not to contact you again. Does this right also apply if they are contacting you about someone else’s debt?
Block explained that the cease communication provisions of the FDCPA apply to a “consumer,” which is defined as any person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay a debt. So if the call states that someone other than the recipient of the call is obligated to pay a debt, the recipient of the call is not a consumer and does not get the benefits of the cease contact provisions.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost. Block points to another section of the FDCPA that addresses situations where collectors call any person other than the consumer for purposes of acquiring location information about the consumer. There, the FDCPA provides that the collector cannot communicate with that person more than once unless the collector has reason to believe that the person is lying or the person requests the collector to call again. So a person who is receiving calls about someone else’s debt can speak with the collector once and say whether or not he or she knows the whereabouts of the debtor. That should put an end to the calls. If not, the recipient of those calls can sue the debt collector.
Salvo shares the other side of the story. She said some consumers will go to great lengths to avoid collectors. “One of our clients had a debtor who told him that he (himself—the debtor) had died.” She also cautioned that some consumers are suing even if they haven’t been harassed. “In court cases, our clients can produce recordings of the calls they place, and sometimes it’s clear they weren’t harassing the debtor.”
My view? We need a Do Not Call List for debt collection agencies, similar to the one in place for telemarketers. Consumers who are on the receiving end of calls for someone else would be able to register their number to stop these types of calls.
There are practical issues involved, of course. Debtors could register their phone numbers just to make phone calls stop. But already, under FDCPA, a consumer can write to the collector, tell it not to contact them again, and the calls must stop.
If you are getting collection calls for someone else:
- Take notes. Write down the phone number they are calling from and try to speak to someone to get the name of the collection agency. Remember, under the FDCPA, if you are receiving calls for someone else, they are required to provide the name of their employer upon request.
- Tell the collector they have the wrong person, and ask them not to contact you again.
- If the collector calls again, tell them you are going to report them to the FTC and your state attorney general—and do so. You may want to offer to fax them a copy of your phone bill with your request that your number be removed from the debtor’s records, but you are not required to do that.
- If the calls continue, contact a consumer law attorney.
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