What makes someone wake up one day and decide to become a debt collector? Perhaps they just enjoy being on the phone, so the prospect of calling someone over and over again until they answer is a major draw. Perhaps they get a buzz from intimidating the poor debtor who can’t pay his bills. For some, the sound of a baseball bat connecting with a knee cap might elicit the kind of calm, soothing feeling that the rest of us feel when we hear birds chirping. For those of you who just emitted a horrified gasp, you can relax. The days when debt collectors could show up at your door with a baseball bat are long gone (in fact, I’m not sure that was ever ok).
You’ll be relieved to hear that in California, the outlawing of the baseball bat is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the emasculation of the debt collector. There are strict regulations that they must adhere to. If they don’t, they are breaking the law. Here are some of the main protections that you have against unscrupulous debt collectors. Remember, if they don’t abide by these rules, then you may be able to take legal action against them. At the very least, you will be able to assert legal rights to make them stop their harassment.
Protection from harassment and abuse: in California debt collectors cannot harass or abuse you. They can’t call you in the middle of the night. They can’t threaten you with illegal actions. They can’t say they will sue you if there are no legal grounds on which they could sue. They can’t try to make their letters look as if they are coming from an attorney or the court when in fact that is not the case.
Interest and other charges: debt collectors in California cannot add interest or other charges onto your debt unless the original agreement you signed allows them to, or they are otherwise permitted to do so by law. If they try to add on interest or other charges, ask in writing for them to explain on what basis they have calculated these amounts.
Contacting your employer: there are rules governing what they may contact your employer for. They can’t contact your employer just to embarrass you or to try to interfere with your job. They can contact your employer to, for example, verify your employment or arrange to take payment directly from your paycheck. But remember, they can only take wages directly from your paycheck if they have sued you and won, ie a court has entered a judgment against you.
Too late: a new law came into effect in California at the beginning of 2019 that requires debt collectors to inform debtors if their debt has become time barred. Essentially, if a certain amount of time passes, you cannot be sued for a debt. In California, this amount of time (known as the statute of limitations) is four years. Any debt collector that does not provide you with this information in the required form is not complying with the new law.
What should you do if you think a California debt collector is not complying with these laws and regulations? You may want to speak to an attorney about whether you have the right to sue the debt collector. If suing the debt collector seems like an enormous hassle and a quiet life is what you are after, send the debt collector a letter setting out all the legal violations that you believe the debt collector is guilty of, and demand that they stop harassing you. Being specific about their violations makes it more likely they will comply with your demands. If that doesn’t work, consider getting a lawyer to send them a cease and desist letter on your behalf.