The watchdog agency, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), reports that shady or illegal debt collection tactics are their top complaint category and one of the groups most affected by bad debt collecting behavior is seniors. Now, more than ever, seniors are carrying increasing debt loads into retirement and these can be tough to juggle on a fixed income. If you're an older American, are struggling to pay your bills and are being harassed by debt collectors, here's what you need to know to protect yourself.
#1 Demand proof of the debt
If you get a phone call requesting payment of a debt that you don't recognize, it's your right to demand that the collector provide proof of the debt. Often, you may get letters saying a debt is owed and an amount but not the original creditor's name. You should not cave in and pay what the caller or letter-sender is demanding. Ask for the name and address of who they think you owe. If the debt collector refuses to provide this information, ask for their company name, address and phone number. If they refuse to provide this, ask them to not call you again and end the call. Write down whatever you remember from the call and if they continue to harass you, report them to the North Carolina Department of Justice (or the DOJ wherever you live).
#2 Push back if the amount or debt is not legitimate
If you recognize the creditor name, but the amount is off or the debt is not yours or for an account you previously paid in full, you need to push back. Contact the creditor directly and ask for a statement of account showing all your charges, payments and balances. The debt collector may not have this on hand or won't provide it, so contacting the original creditor makes sense. If the debt is not yours, ask the creditor to show you proof that you signed for this debt via a signed contract or agreements. If you previously paid off the account, you may need to get bank statements to substantiate your claim. The bottom line is you should not pay a debt you don't rightly owe.
#3 Don't take any abuse or harassment
If you are contacted by a debt collector that's abusive, curses at you or makes threats of jail or other illegal threats, you don't have to put up with it. First, tell them to stop the behavior. If they don't, tell them to stop calling. If they keep calling, tell them you're going to report them. Send the debt collection agency a letter, if you have their address, write and ask them to stop contacting you via phone and to only communicate by letter. If the harassing calls don't stop, report the agency to both the NC DOJ (or the DOJ in your state) and the CFPB. You don't have to put up with the abuse and should not. It may be scary to confront them, but you can end it.
#4 Know your legal rights
There are some debts you don't have to pay. For instance, if your spouse had a debt that you are not a co-debtor on and they passed away, you usually will not have to pay it. If you're living on Social Security or veteran's benefits, these are usually exempt from collections unless you owe Federal taxes or student loans. Also, if a debt is over a certain age, the creditor may have no legal teeth to go after you. For instance, if you have a credit card you haven't made a payment on in years, the statute of limitations may have expired so the creditor can't take you to court and sue for a judgment to try and get a lien on an asset.