Debt collection companies too often have a reputation for using strong-arm strategies to get people to pay legitimate debts. Most firms follow federal and state laws to prevent abuses. But some companies ignore the rules and use scare tactics to collect fraudulent debts from people who pay what they don't owe.
Last month, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine sued Collection and Recovery Bureau (CRB), a Sylvania-based collection agency. Since 2009, Mr. DeWine said, more than 400 people complained to his office or the Better Business Bureau that they had been "harassed, cursed at, and threatened with ruined credit, lawsuits, or jail" by the company -- over debts that they did not owe.
Often, the debts involved fraudulent charges to sex-related Web sites made on consumers' credit cards. The credit-card company would deny the charges, but collection companies -- allegedly including CRB -- would buy the debts from the Web sites for pennies on the dollar and try to get the card owner to pay.
Officials say people who fight back represent only a tiny fraction of the number who are subjected to harassing telephone calls. Thousands pay up, not because they've done anything wrong, but because they're afraid their reputation or credit will be ruined.
You don't have to take it. According to the state attorney general's Web site, debt collectors must send you a letter within five days of the initial contact that details how much you owe, who it's owed to, your rights to dispute the debt, and how to obtain documentation that the debt is real.
If you believe you don't owe anything, send the collection agency a certified letter within 30 days of contact to request verification of the debt. The collector legally can't contact you again until you get proof of what you owe.
Often, just asserting your rights is enough to discourage fraudulent debt schemers. But you can -- and should -- do more.
You can report an abusive company at ohioattorneygeneral.gov or call 1-800-282-0515. Or contact the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-382-4357.
Everyone should pay his or her debts, and most people do. For the rest, collection companies serve a useful, if not always pleasant, purpose.
But no one deserves to be harassed, cursed at, threatened, or intimidated under any circumstances, and certainly not over debts that are not owed. Don't be a victim. Fight back.
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