March 18, 2013
4 Questions that may begin and end every debt collection phone call
In the consumer work that I do, I repeatedly hear about abuses that people are subjected to by debt collectors without any respect for the rule of law and without any sense of common decency. I am frequently asked by clients, friends, colleagues, and others what are some of the ways that people can protect themselves against becoming victimized by these collectors.
I use the term victimized because of the clear distinction in power in such phone calls. Debt collectors will often be much more bold and aggressive on the telephone than they would ever be in person. The job that requires making these types of phone calls day in and day out is ideal for a person who suffers a certain kind of cowardice. These callers know who you are, or at least have access to a good deal of sensitive and private information. All the while, you know nothing about the callers. This is power for the debt collectors.
After cataloguing the many types of complaints and accounts I hear about the manner in which these collection abuses take place, I have come up with four questions that, if asked by the consumer immediately when the call begins, may very well shut down the entire situation before the consumer is intimidated, tricked, bullied, harassed, or otherwise lured into providing compromising information to the complete stranger on the other end of the phone. What I hope the information that I am providing here will do is prevent readers and consumers from giving such callers even more sensitive and private information than they already have.
First, the person who receives a call from a debt collector should ask the first and last name of the person calling. If the caller tells you that he is Mr. Thompson, or Ms. Russell, but refuses to give a first name, the consumer should hang up the phone or otherwise terminate the call. Be prepared for the caller to try to change the subject or “deflect,” as the longer they can keep you on the phone, the greater the chance they have of getting you to eventually give them more information that they can use to take more aggressive collection actions. Do not be afraid to hang up the phone if the person who knows your first and last name will not give you his or her first and last name.
Second, ask for the name of the company that the caller is calling from. When you ask this question, you may hear the person say they are calling “for” somebody or “on behalf of” some other company. This is not sufficient. If the caller works for ABC Collection Company, you should know the full name of the company. This is going to be helpful for you as the consumer to know and compare what information they say they are calling about with what accounts you may or may not have open, in collections, or listed on your credit report. Once more, if they refuse to answer the question, the call should be over. No more questions.
Third, ask for the number from which they are calling. These days, many of these collection companies have found savvy, and sometimes even illegal, ways to disguise their phone numbers. They do this so that people with caller ID may not recognize the number and will pick up the phone. As I have said, the longer they have your ear, the better their chance of getting paid. Most of these callers work on commission, so they are driven salespeople and may easily lose sight of the boundaries that federal and state laws place on them. If you cannot get the phone number, you cannot continue with the phone call.
Fourth, ask them for the full account number that they are calling about and who is the current owner of the debt. If you have gotten this far and have not had to hang up the phone yet, you will likely find the debt collector answering this question with some statement about how they would need to verify your social security number or identification before they can go into that. This is simply a clever ploy to get you to answer questions before they show you that they at least deserve your five minutes. If they try to deflect or avoid answering, hang up the phone!
I don’t wish to make this all sound so routine or scripted that you let your guard down. Many of these collectors are very experienced and have made a lot of money by making false promises, by falsely stating the amount of the debt or lying about how much they would settle the case for, or even by blatantly threatening that if a person does not pay for or account for the debt that he or she can be arrested. You cannot go to jail or be charged criminally for owing a debt (unless that debt is to the IRS and other factors are met).
My point is that the call will likely not follow any of the exact script that I have laid out above, but I would be shocked if a vigilant consumer is able to get through the four questions and still finds himself or herself on the phone with a debt collector. They are not customarily successful by demonstrating professional, kind, and understanding demeanors on the phone. They are instead trained on how to use assertive tones, guilt, shame, and a host of other tactics to exploit unsuspecting strangers on the other end of the line into making agreements that they may not be able to uphold. They are also quite capable of getting many, many folks to give them social security numbers and bank accounts. This is never a good idea. This is NEVER a good idea.
I feel compelled to say that a second time. Do not give out your social security number or banking information over the telephone. No good can ever come of this regardless of the threat that the debt collection caller may make. If you feel pressured to give this information, the caller is likely violating the law. It is as easy as that. Furthermore, if you’re not sure what to do, tell the caller you have to talk to your lawyer and that you will call them back with the number and name, first and last, that the person gave you at the beginning of the call. If the caller tells you that the deal or offer to settle is only good for that night, it is a lie, or not a “deal” at all.
As an attorney, I have one rule that transcends all the work that I do and has been an invaluable resource for me and my clients. If it is not in writing or recorded, it did not happen. If you find yourself talking to one of these debt collection callers, tell them to send you the settlement offer in writing. Tell them to provide all their information, the account they are calling about, the balance, the owner of the account to you in a letter in the mail. They may then try to “verify” your address, but I caution you to respond that you are certain they already have it. You can then wish the caller a goodnight and hang up.
In over a decade of practicing law, I have never heard a single positive experience of someone who resolved a debt through a telephone call. On the other hand, I have heard nightmare stories over and over again where people were tricked or bullied into giving total strangers access to their bank accounts. These people were not stupid, if that is what you were thinking. We all have moments of frailty when we are more subject to being taken advantage of, and when a debt collector calls, we have a stranger who knows something about us that makes us feel bad about ourselves, our financial situation, or our current circumstances. Once they have us feeling defeated, they act as though they are in a position to help. They are not in a position to help.
I do not want to have you as the reader thinking that every single debt collector is a criminal or violates the law when he or she does his or her job. Experience tells me that those people with strong ethics and respect for the law do not thrive as debt collection callers. They are not willing to cross lines that the law creates for them and they will ultimately make less money than those willing to do whatever it takes. Vigilance and knowledge are the best tools you have at your disposal to deal with the callers who do not care about boundaries. The four questions listed above should serve you well going forward.