MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. With the economy suffering, there's one industry experiencing plenty of growth, and it is debt collection. And more people file complaints about debt collection than any other business. The Federal Trade Commission received nearly 70,000 such complaints in 2006. Here with more is Michelle Singletary, Day to Day personal finance contributor. Michelle, what is it that consumers are complaining about?
MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Well, you know, the Better Business Bureau has been getting lots of complaints from people who are being contacted by debt collectors. Clearly, we've got an economy that is in a lot of trouble, so people can't pay their debts. And often these people are complaining about being harassed. The Better Business Bureau says that people have been upset that collectors are contacting their neighbors, friends, and even employers, making disparaging remarks in an effort to try to shame them into paying up.
CHADWICK: So if people are getting these kinds of calls or their neighbors or friends or bosses are, what rights do they have when a debt collector is doing this kind of thing?
SINGLETARY: Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors are required to treat you fairly, and they are prohibited from using certain methods to collect their debt. For example, they have to contact you at reasonable times. So that means they can't call you before eight o'clock, or after nine p.m. Generally, collectors can't harass you, and they can't lie to you. They can't tell you, for example, that you're going to be locked up for not paying this debt.
CHADWICK: What about these calls to neighbors and friends? Can they do that?
SINGLETARY: They can call people to try to find your whereabouts, and people don't realize, when you fill out loan applications, there's usually a little section that asks you to list the name and number of your closest relative or friend or something like that. That's why that question is on that, so they can track you down if you owe them money. However, they cannot tell that person that they are calling about a debt. So, they can't say, oh, I'm calling for Michelle, and she owes me 1,000 dollars. You need to tell her to call me.
CHADWICK: Where is that deadbeat?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHADWICK: But you can't actually stop the debt collector from calling people.
SINGLETARY: Collectors generally cannot contact you after you write a letter telling them to stop. Now, listen, the agency may still inform you if the debt collector intends to take some specific actions. So say you write them a letter and say don't contact me anymore, they can send you a letter to say we are going to sue you for this debt. But that doesn't mean that you are not obligated to pay that debt, it just means they have to stop contacting you.
CHADWICK: Well, OK, let's suppose that you don't have the money to pay your debts right now, and you are being pursued by one of these debt collectors. And you feel like you're being harassed, and you do mean to pay this debt off, but you can't do it at the moment. What recourse do you have?
SINGLETARY: First of all, I would advise people, if you feel as if you are being harassed by a debt collector, contact the BBB. They can act as a mediator for you, and you can go online and find the local agency for your area. You also have the right to sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you get to recover money for the damages you suffered, plus an amount up to 1,000 dollars, and you can also recover court costs and attorney fees. And again, I want to stress, if you legitimately owe this debt, you should do to the best of your ability to try to pay this off.
CHADWICK: Michelle Singletary is our regular expert on personal finance, and she writes the nationally syndicated column "The Color of Money." To hear more from Michelle, check out her NPR podcast. Go online at npr.org/colorofmoney. That's all one word. And if you have a financial question for Michelle, you can write us. Go to our website, npr.org, click on the "Contact Us" link, it's found at the top of every page, and put Michelle in the subject line.