Know your rights when a debt collector calls

When a debt collector calls, don't let them push you around.

A third of consumers have been contacted by a creditor or debt collector in the past 12 months, according to a survey released Thursday from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Of those consumers who had contact with a debt collector, 27 percent reported feeling threatened by the conduct of that collector, and 36 percent said they received a call at an "inconvenient" time between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.

The survey was conducted from December 2014 to March 2015, and included 2,132 respondents.

Nobody should be surprised that debt collection drives more consumer complaints than any other financial product or service.
Richard Cordray
director, CFPB

"Responsible debt collectors that do their work with care and treat consumers with respect are a natural and even an essential part of the financial marketplace," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in the announcement. "Yet nobody should be surprised that debt collection drives more consumer complaints than any other financial product or service."

The CFPB proposed new regulations in July that would require debt collectors to do more due diligence to ensure they are collecting on a legitimate debt, and cap their weekly attempts to reach a customer. The bureau has also stepped up enforcement efforts, bringing more than 25 cases on debt-collection tactics that deceive or abuse consumers.

"Our survey also reflects a grim reality for many consumers who find themselves on a debt collector's radar," Cordray said. "They may be threatened or harassed with incessant contacts. They may be contacted about debts they do not owe.They may be given incorrect information about debts they do owe."

Here's how to fight back the next time a debt-collector calls:

Know your rights

"The very first thing I would recommend people do is take time and familiarize themselves with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, when the regulations were proposed. He recommends the Federal Trade Commission's plain-language explainer.

"You can see exactly how you're protected as a consumer when a debt collector calls," McClary said.

For example, collectors are prohibited from behaviors including threatening violence or harm, or using profanity. They are also prohibited from calling you at inconvenient times, unless you agree to that contact.

Then make sure on the next call you receive to tell the collector that you're aware of your rights under the act, McClary said. It may influence their behavior.

Verify everything

According to the CFPB survey, half of Americans contacted about a debt in the past year said they were given inaccurate information about what they owed.

"To be specific, many consumers said they did not believe they owed the debt at all, that the creditor or collector sought an incorrect amount, or that the debt was owed not by them but by another family member," Cordray said in the announcement.

Debt collectors are legally required to follow up their call with a written notice detailing the debt, April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, told CNBC at the time of rule proposal. Ask for that information.

"Understand that just because somebody is calling to collect a debt, that the consumer doesn't need to pay right away," she said.

There are debt collection scams, so it's important to verify that both the debt and the collector are legit before making any arrangements to pay, she said. Make sure the debt isn't so-called zombie debt that's past the statute of limitations in your state.

Take notes

Log every contact from the collector, including the agency, the number they called, the time of the call and the representative you spoke with, McClary said. Take notes on what was said. That record-keeping can prove helpful if you need to file a complaint about the collector's behavior.

Be the squeaky wheel

Complain to the CFPB and your state attorney general about any debt collection abuses you encounter, said Kuehnhoff. There have been several recent cases where the government has taken action against bad practices.

"It's encouraging now to see there's some attention being paid to these practices," McClary said.