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Ask the Attorney: Can debt collectors contact me?

Before I delve into the question "Can debt collectors contact me at work?" I want to start off our discussion by asking the following question:

Do you have a plan of action to take when confronted with a debt challenge?

What is a debt challenge? It’s the temporary inability for whatever reason to make a debt payment on time, in the full amount due, or according to an existing debt repayment plan. Isn’t that what happens when you have to miss a payment or cannot pay the full amount owed on the due date?

We all have changes in our financial circumstances, which means ups and downs.
When a financial situation changes so that you are unable to pay all your creditors, this temporary situation can be addressed with a plan of action. The details may require steps taken over a span of time, but the essential three steps you can learn and take today.

Step 1: Recognize in advance that you will be contacted by creditors if you don’t contact them FIRST.

Step 2: Plan what you will say and do as a practical solution given the change in your finances, NEXT.

Step 3: Know your rights and resources under the law so you remain in control of situation, ALWAYS.

  • Step 1: Choose whether you will call first or reply to a call from a creditor.

As soon as you realize that your financial situation has changed so that you have less money available to make payments, you can decide what to do as far as communicating with creditors. If you choose to wait because there is a possibility that a financial situation will shift in your favor, just be aware that the creditor (or collection agency) will be persistent in trying to reach you because they are not aware of anything different in your ability to pay on a debt as previously agreed.

  • Step 2: Be ready to make an agreement that you can afford to pay over time to pay off your debt in full. A creditor is much more likely to settle on a lower amount than the total value of the debt, if the debt was sold to a collection agency.

Basically, calling a creditor is your attempt to renegotiate the terms of your agreement, taking into account what you can now actually afford. Whether you are the one making the first call or responding to a creditor’s call, if you are communicating about reducing your monthly payment, be sure you do two things:

1) Put your request in writing and keep a copy for your records. Explaining your situation in writing has a more persuasive effect and serves as a record of your good faith attempt to make payments, and

2) Know in advance what you can realistically afford to pay; don’t just make a one-time promise to get by, delay dealing with them for another month, and get rid of them. You lose credibility when you don’t keep your payments as renegotiated; the collector can cancel the agreement and demand payment of full amount.
Know the call restrictions that apply to California collections.
If your debt has already has gone to collection and you are just dealing with collection agency calls, you still have these controls, limitations and protections provided by federal and state laws (see “Your Rights Under California’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act” at the California Attorney General’s website at http://oag.ca.gov/consumers/general/collection_agencies10#responding):

  • Collection calls may occur only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. You or your employer can prohibit collection calls coming to you at work by informing the collection agency in writing that you only want to receive their communications via mail;
  • If these hours are inconvenient for you, you may ask the agency to contact you at other times, or only at certain phone numbers;
  • Repeated calls over a short period, which may be annoying or harassing, are prohibited;
  • If you prefer that the agency contact you only by mail, you may ask them to do that; it is best to make that request by certified mail and keep a copy for your records;
  • Your privacy is protected. Collectors cannot use postcards when contacting others, and envelopes must not contain information showing that they have been sent by a collection agency;
  • When contacting the person who owes the debt, the collector must give either his or her name, or the name of the collection agency, but when contacting someone other than the person who owes the debt, the collector must give his or her name but not the name of the collection agency, unless asked to provide that information;
  • A collector cannot represent themselves as anyone except a collector, and must tell the person who owes the debt that he or she is trying to collect the debt;
  • A collection agency cannot use any words or symbols in its notices to make the person who owes the debt think the notices are legal documents when they are not, or that they come from anyone other than a collection agency.

Times change along with resources for debt repayment. Know how to be on the best course to go through the current lack of resources, and maintain your confidence so you won’t feel helplessly stuck when you also could be moving forward with the changes.

Kaushik Ranchod practices bankruptcy and immigration law in Sacramento and San Francisco.  Email him your financial legal questions for next week’s column at info@california-bankruptcyattorney.com.


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