Bust predatory debt collectors who break the law

Almost everybody’s gotten them – those automated robo-calls from collection agencies looking for someone, either you or someone with a vaguely similar name. They’re irritating, but it’s easy to ignore them by hanging up or skipping over them in voice mail.

But some debt collectors go far beyond irritating and are illegally threatening people, calling them repeatedly at home and at work. Some even pressure people who don’t owe anything to send money by posing as law enforcement agents who can have them arrested and thrown into jail. Senior citizens are especially vulnerable to these jackals’ harassment and threats.

Federal law enforcement agencies are finally cracking down on this seedy business. A Georgia debt collection agency’s owner and six employees were busted Tuesday for running a scam that targeted thousands of people in every state and collected more than $4 million. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The U.S. attorney who took part in the action said abusive practices have “become something of an epidemic,” and even a top FBI official was called.

Companies that are owed money have the right to seek restitution, but the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act limits how aggressively they can go about it. Debt collectors are not allowed to pose as law enforcement or attorneys. They cannot threaten arrest and property confiscation, harass with repetitious calls, or use deceptive or misleading practices. They can only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. If you ask them to stop calling you at work, they must comply.

Any debt collector who crosses those lines should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov) or to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint). The collector might also be violating state law and should be reported to the state attorney general (www.atg.wa.gov; click on “Safeguarding consumers” and “File a complaint”).

Sadly, many Americans went into debt during the recession, and an estimated 77 million have had their debt go to collections. The average amount owed, according to the Urban Institute, was $5,200.

Those in debt should do everything they can do settle accounts; try to negotiate a payment plan, for instance. But anyone can fall behind for any number of reasons, including job loss and steep health care costs. Predatory collectors must not be allowed to use abusive, illegal tactics. The feds are right to crack down on the bad apples.