Debt collection may begin when you’re past due on a hospital bill, car loan, cellphone bill or just about anything you owe money on. When you haven’t showed signs of paying on the bill (normally after three months), the company will usually send your account to collections to try to get their money. Unethical debt collectors often try to trick and intimidate Servicemembers into making payments on debts. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which makes it illegal for debt collectors to use abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices when they collect debts. Here are tips about your rights under the law in dealing with debt collections.
The Truth About Dealing with Debt Collections:
1. Debt collectors cannot revoke your security clearance. Debt collectors can report debts to credit reporting agencies. Reported debts will show up on your credit history report and may lower your credit score. During a background investigation to review your security clearance, credit history is just one of many factors in determining your clearance level. You have the right to get free copies of your credit report and dispute incorrect items. If your clearance gets suspended due to debts, you have the right to appeal. Visit https://www.annualcreditreport.com for free copies of your report. Contact the Legal Assistance Office for help if you are informed your security clearance is being revoked.
2. Debt collectors cannot contact your command in order to collect a debt, unless they have your consent to do so. Consent is not valid unless you give it after the debt becomes due. You are not required to give consent.
3. Debt collectors cannot garnish (automatically take payment from) your pay. Debt collectors may not garnish pay unless a court entered a judgment against you. In most cases, debt collectors cannot garnish veterans’ benefits. To learn more about military pay garnishments and involuntary allotments, visit https://www.dfas.mil/
4. If a debt collector is trying to collect a debt that you do not owe or already paid, dispute the debt in writing. Tell the debt collector, in writing, why you do not owe the debt and include copies of any evidence you have. Mail this dispute to the debt collector using registered mail so that you have proof that the collector received it, and keep copies of everything for yourself. If you dispute the debt within 30 days of the first time the collector contacts you, the collector must stop collection until it shows you written proof of the debt.
5. While you are on active duty, you may be able to lower the interest rate on your debts and postpone your mortgage payments, car lease payments, and other payments. Ask a legal assistance attorney for help on how to do so.
6. Know that you can negotiate a smaller payment. They are not obligated to accept a smaller payment, but debt collectors often times are willing to work with you. Ensure you do not give them any money until you have the agreed settlement offer in writing.
7. Don’t ignore debt collectors—they will keep contacting you. It’s important to respond as soon as possible—even if you do not owe the debt—because otherwise the collector may continue trying to collect the debt, report negative information to credit reporting agencies, and even sue you. If a collector contacts you about a debt that you do not owe or that is for the wrong amount, dispute the debt in writing as soon as possible.
8. If you do get sued, or if a court enters a judgment against you, get help immediately from your Legal Assistance Office.
9. Generally there is a time limit for filing a lawsuit to collect a debt based on a written agreement (four years in California). However, it may be hard to figure out when the clock on that period starts to run or can be restarted. Debt collectors may still attempt to collect a debt after they are no longer able to sue you. Contact the Legal Assistance Office if you believe your debt is time-barred.
10. Under California and federal laws, debt collectors are not allowed to call other people without your permission to tell them that you owe a debt or continue to call or contact you if you asked them in writing to stop doing so. They also cannot harass, abuse, or annoy you, which means they cannot contact you at inconvenient places or times, use abusive language, or threaten to harm you, your loved ones, or your property. Additionally, they may not lie to you or misrepresent the amount you owe.
What if the Debt Collectors Violate the Law?
Report any problems you have with a debt collector to: your state Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You may also have legal remedy against that debt collector for violating your rights. You can sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year of the date the law was violated. You can sue for damages, like lost wages and medical bills. If you can’t prove damages, you may still be awarded some compensation plus reimbursement for attorney’s fees and court costs. However, even if a court finds a debt collector violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in trying to collect a debt, you still owe the debt if its validity is not disputed.
What Do I Do?
It’s not easy dealing with debt collectors. But there’s still hope. Knowing what they can and can’t do helps you get back on the path to debt freedom and some peace and quiet. If you owe debts and are being contacted by a debt collector, seek out the Legal Assistance Office for help. To make an appointment with an attorney, contact the Legal Assistance Office at (760) 380-5321. We are located at BLDG 230 on C Ave. Our hours are Mon. and Thurs., 1300-1600; Tue., Wed., and Fri., 0800 to 1600.