Getting a call from a debt collector can be unsettling in any circumstance. But what if the collector is chasing one of your relatives or a friend? Or what if they are trying to collect the debt from you, or have mistaken you for the person who owes? Is the phone call legal?
Yes, debt collectors can pursue third parties for information, according to government and privacy sources. But there are limitations, and if the debt collector doesn't stick to the law, you can, in many circumstances, sue them.
Let's take a hypothetical situation step-by-step. You get a call from a debt collector who claims you owe a debt you've never heard of. What should you do?a) Hang up the phone.
b) Threaten to sue.
c) Try to talk the situation through.
d) Demand proof of the debt.
The answer is c) and d). Don't just hang up or ignore the call, as the debt collector may decide to file a judgment against you. It's far easier to work things out at the beginning rather than after lawyers and courts are involved. And in any debt-collection situation, whether it's yours or not, it's a good idea to ask for proof of the debt if the call comes as a surprise. According to this report posted by the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland, debt-collection scams are on the rise in that state. You can bet they are elsewhere as well.
So, in talking the situation through, let's say you find out the call is regarding a relative's debt, not yours. What do you do?
a) Assume the phone call is a mistake and hang up.
b) Challenge the legality of the creditor's phone call and threaten to sue.
c) Take revenge on your relative for years of crummy Christmas gifts, and rat them out.
d) Politely try to come to an agreement with the debt collector that satisfies you.
The answer is, of course, d). It is legal for a debt collector to call a family member in pursuit of a debt, however, they can't go into detail about it with you (of course, that's a moot point if they've mistaken you for your relative and told you what they think you owe). They can only call you once, and they have to stop calling you if you tell them to.
Also, if the debt collector already has the information they're looking for, such as your relative's address and phone number, they are not allowed to contact you. But they can call you for that information if they don't have it -- though you are not obligated to provide it.
Even if you hung up on the debt collector the first time, it's worth trying to exchange as much information with them as the law allows. If the collector's call was the last you received, try dialing *69. If this yields a working phone number, try dialing it. If you get a human being on the other end of the phone, you can explain the situation and ask to speak to a supervisor. An additional benefit to this approach is that you will gather valuable evidence as to whether the debt collector is a scammer or for real. If you get that spooky recorded Star Trek voice, though, that tells you "the number you are trying to call cannot be reached by this method," there's a good possibility you're dealing with a scammer.
Remember that states may have their own laws giving you additional rights. You can find a listing at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
What to Do If a Debt Collector Calls Looking for Family or Friends