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Know your debt-collection rights

June 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
When it comes to collecting on a debt, experts say creditors are ramping up their methods to make sure you know they want their money. While they may "reach out" to your friends and family, it's important to know you have rights. For many of us, it would be bad enough to get a call from a debt collector. But can you imagine how you'd feel if the collector called someone in your family or a neighbor while looking for you?

"I see this as a growing problem," said Beth Givens, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Consumer advocates say lenders are getting more and more aggressive. They're calling you sooner, and reaching out to third parties. And don't be surprised if the message goes high-tech.

"Mail, e-mail, text messages," said Ken Patterson, Mercator Credit Advisory Services.

How do collectors get your relatives' and friends' information? Well, if you list your parents as the contact on a doctor's form, or use your best friend as a reference on a credit application, then it's fair game for debt collectors to reach out to them.

But you have rights. Collectors aren't supposed to even mention the reason for the call.

"If you are in debt, know that there is a federal law that puts limits on the kinds of communications that debt collectors can have and it pays to really be informed," said Givens.

Collectors can only ask third parties for your location or contact information. And your relatives and friends aren't legally obligated to reveal anything. And anyone can tell the collector not to call back and by law, the calls have to stop.

"A collection situation is never easy for a consumer to deal with," said Paterson.

Even if your debt hasn't been turned over to a collection agency, you or someone you know may be contacted directly by your lender as well.

That's what happened to Laura Wynn, who says her family was contacted by her car loan company.

"My sister called me very upset and said that somebody had called and wanted to know if she knew what kind of person I was and the lack of integrity that I held," said Wynn.

Unfortunately, privacy experts point out this trend is truly a sign of the times.

"In this time of economic downturn, debt collection is a growth industry, so I think that we're going to be hearing more complaints about debt collectors," said Givens.

If you feel the collector's company or creditor crosses the line -- either discussing your debt with a third party, or calling repeatedly after you've asked them to stop -- you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

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