5 Tips for Stopping Debt Collectors in Their Tracks

There are many ways to fight back against debt collectors. But to stop them cold, a few tips are worth repeating. These tips may not apply to every debt, but at least one of them might apply to yours.

1. Check the statute of limitations.

Under Massachusetts law, the statute of limitations on a consumer debt such as a credit card or medical bill is six (6) years. This is typically measured from the date of the last payment.

Some credit cards, however, are governed by other states’ statutes of limitations, as we explained in another article.

If a debt collector files a collection lawsuit after the statute of limitations has expired, they are probably in violation of consumer protection laws.

Debt collectors are, however, permitted to ask for payment. But you should feel free to refuse to pay if the debt is past the statute of limitations. You may need to obtain legal advice about which statute of limitations applies.

2. Verify that the debt collector is licensed to collect debts.

Under Massachusetts law, debt collectors must obtain a license from the Massachusetts Division of Banks to engage in debt collection. Failure to do so is a violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, called Chapter 93A.

If you have already paid money to an unlicensed debt collector, they must return any funds to you within 30 days if you make a written demand.

The database containing debt collector registration information is called NMLS Consumer Access and can be accessed for free by the general public. Our office has obtained decisions against two major debt collectors, Midland Funding and LVNV Funding, holding that they may be required to be licensed.

3. Check your credit report for errors.

Creditors and lenders regularly access your credit report to determine whether to lend to you. And it has been estimated that up to 25% of credit reports have significant errors in them. Yet, even though credit reports are free to obtain, most consumers never verify that incorrect information is being reported. This leads to unaddressed identity theft, credit denials, and increased interest rates.

What does this have to do with debt collection? If a debt collector reports something inaccurate on your credit report, it may be a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

The process for keeping your credit reports accurate is simple, and boils down to three steps, as follows.

First, obtain your credit reports by calling (877) 322-8228. This is the phone number for Annual Credit Report, the government-mandated service that allows you to obtain all three of your credit reports for free.

Second, review the credit reports for accuracy. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, credit reports may not be inaccurate or misleading.

Third, if there is inaccurate or misleading information on your credit report, send a written dispute. Send it by certified mail and include all supporting documentation (don’t submit it online or by phone). It must be sent to each credit bureau that is reporting the inaccurate information. Keep a copy for your records. The credit bureaus must respond within 30 days. There are three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

If the inaccurate or misleading information is not removed, you may have a claim under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Our office may be able to represent you, and we can advise you on how to \submit a dispute about an inaccurate account.

4. Review the collections process for violations of consumer protection laws.

The collection process is rife with opportunities for debt collectors to violate consumer protection laws like the FDCPA or the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. By being aware of your rights, you can use these mistakes to your advantage to get leverage.

Some of the most common debt collection violations are:

  • Filing suit past the statute of limitations (see above),
  • Contacting you after you have requested to be left alone,
  • Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.,
  • Continuing to contact you after you have requested validation of the debt,
  • Making misleading statements about the debt,
  • Telling third parties about the debt,
  • Contacting you directly, if you have a lawyer,
  • Misstating the amount of the debt,
  • Making insulting, degrading, or obscene statements, and
  • Making threats that they do not intend to follow through on.

These are just a few examples of behavior prohibited under consumer protection laws. Generally, if a debt collector does anything that is not truthful, fair, or respectful, they may have violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

5. If you’re being sued, respond to the summons and complaint and demand discovery.

The courtroom is the arena where Americans can assert their rights. But the court rules are strict — the first rule is that, in most cases, if you don’t respond to notification of a lawsuit within 20 days, you automatically lose. This notification is called a summons and complaint. Under Massachusetts law, it is usually delivered by a sheriff.

The sheriff does not have to give you the summons and complaint personally. It just has to be left at your last and usual place of residence. The standard practice is to tape it to your door.

If you do respond, though, your rights multiply. You then have the right to obtain discovery, which is to request all the documents and testimony that the debt collector intends to rely on at trial. This is important because most debt collectors (especially debt buyers) do not have sufficient proof that they own the debts they are collecting. But you can’t get any of this if you don’t respond to the complaint in 20 days.

The above five tips for stopping debt collectors, although by no means comprehensive, are some of the most important things you can do if you’re being harassed by a debt collector. If you feel your rights may have been violated, contact us for a debt consultation.

Josef Culik

Josef Culik

Attorney Joe Culik has built his reputation on helping people and has dedicated his practice in Boston, Massachusetts to consumer protection, employee rights, and small business and franchise law.