Trouble with bills? What are your rights?

Seven On Your Side
May 8, 2008 9:00:00 PM PDT
The slumping economy means that it's a booming time for bill collectors. They come out of the woodwork, and sometimes their methods aren't always polite or, as it turns out, legal.

Some victims of aggressive bill collectors had only one place to turn: Tappy Phillips and 7 On Your Side.

With these tough economic times, many people are falling behind in their bills. But did you know that debtors have rights?

"Day after day, week after week, I keep getting the phone calls," Evelyne Jacques said. "I get the letters."

Jacques was being hounded by a debt collector.

"I was stressed," she said. "I lost sleep over it. I just couldn't understand, where did this come from?"

The debt collector told her it was for MasterCard charge back in 1994. But Evelyne had no credit cards then.

Jacques: "'94, I just graduated high school."
Tappy: "Did you have any credit cards when you just graduated from high school?"
Jacques: "No, I didn't have any credit cards."

"One of the more frequent complaints we get is simply harassment," said Glen Gordon, of the Federal Trade Commission.

What Evelyne didn't know was that there are laws to protect her.

"What the debt collector can't do is threaten to sue you, because they know that the debt is time barred," Gordon said.

And there's a statute of limitations. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, generally debts expire after six years. But that's doesn't mean collectors can't ask for it. Just don't make a payment promise.

"If you've got a 20-year-old debt, and the debt collector starts harassing you about it, and you say, OK, I will agree to pay X amount to settle this, you've created a brand new obligation," Gordon said.

And there's another new trick collectors are trying.

"She kept going on and on, 'Can you please tell me, please help me,'" consumer Carolyn Montague said.

A debt collector called her, trying to convince her to contact her next door neighbor who owed money.

"I felt like I was being harassed," she said. "I'm not the one that owes this person money, nor am I the person getting paid to get the money."

And she's right. It's against the law.

"There's no reason for them to be calling your neighbor," Gordon said. "Seems to us that it's probably just an effort to perhaps embarrass you into paying a debt."

As for Evelyne? We called the collection agency and they backed off.

So what if a debt collector is harassing you for a debt you don't owe. The first tip? Question the bill in writing. You have just 30 days to get that to them. And send it "return receipt requested" so you have a record of it.

To find out all your rights against debt collectors, click here.