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Tess Vigeland: Several of you have written to us recently about debt collection. You've gotten notices in the mail that you owe money on, say, a phone bill from 20 years ago.
Well, you've joined a growing chorus of complaints about debt collectors. The Better Business Bureau says complaints jumped 26 percent last year. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports on what you can do if you're feeling hounded by a collection agency.
Ashley Milne-Tyte: Michael McAuliffe hears from consumers in trouble every day. He's run Family Credit Management, a nonprofit credit counseling service, for almost 10 years. But he's increasingly concerned by what clients are saying about their calls from debt collectors.
Michael McAuliffe: We're hearing more and more people saying, "They told me they're going to send the sheriff to my house, I'm going to go to jail." And that scares people because when you're calling as a collector, they think you must know what you're talking about.
He says plenty of collectors don't. Or they break the law by lying to consumers about what can happen if they don't pay up.
The Fair Debt Collections Act says collectors can't threaten debtors. It bans calls before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., and it prevents collectors from discussing the debt with anyone but the debtor.
Ira Rheingold is executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. He says some collectors ignore the rules because there's a lot of money at stake.
Ira Rheingold: Debt collection is a gigantic business. And as amazing as it sounds, there are industries that are dedicated to buying debts that are years old.
Most lenders like banks will try to collect a debt for several months. Once they decide it's more trouble than it's worth, they often sell that debt for pennies on the dollar to a debt collection company. That company then goes after the debt, aiming to recoup the full amount. Their employees work on commission. So Rheingold says they're highly motivated to call consumers. And call. And call. Be it in person or via an automated service, like this one:
Automated Debt Collector: This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose. Please contact us at an important business matter at 1-800 . . .
More and more Americans are getting calls like this these days. Ira Rheingold says it's partly because the country is wallowing in debt. And he says the third-party debt collection business has exploded over the last several years.
Credit counselor Michael McAuliffe says if these collectors won't leave you alone and you owe the debt, you should face up to it.
McAuliffe: Avoiding it's not gonna be helpful. So they need to look at the problem head-on, see can they make any payments or not.
But what if you're convinced the debt isn't yours?
Alison Preszler is a spokesperson with the Better Business Bureau.
Alison Preszler: Tell the debt collector that you want proof of this debt. And if they can't produce it then they should leave you alone. You can always file a complaint with the FTC, you can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
But that may not be the end of the matter, says Ira Rheingold. He says even if you ask the debt collector to prove the debt is yours, and you never hear from them again:
Rheingold: It is likely that debt is going to be sold to somebody else, who is going to come round further and try to collect your debt.
He advises hiring an attorney -- like him -- who represents consumers in these matters. He says people should check their credit reports regularly to ensure they're not lumbered with someone else's debt.
I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.