by Gary Foreman
Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I had an outstanding judgment against me for $1,000 to pay off an apartment lease that was broken when my ex-husband and I divorced. The total amount owed prior to the judgment was $1,700. The third-party collector who's been calling me insists that I pay that amount. The court said I owe $1,000 which has been paid in full. What can I tell the collector to make him go away?
Fortunately for Sheri she can take control of this situation without too much trouble. Her biggest ally is something called The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. It's a federal law that governs what debt collectors can do.
It's easy to get a bill collector to stop calling. All Sheri needs to do is to notify them in writing that she doesn't want to hear from them anymore. She doesn't need to give them a reason. A simple "please don't contact me anymore" is sufficient. Certified mail is best. After the letter is received the collection agency can only contact her to let her know that they won't be calling her again or to inform her of pending legal action.
Even if Sheri did still owe the money, she has quite a bit of protection under the law. The same request to stop calling works even if you still owe the debt. Obviously stopping the calls doesn't relieve you of the responsibility of paying your debt.
Collection agency tactics are regulated by the Fair Debt Act. It's acceptable for them to contact you by mail, phone, in person or by telegraph. But they cannot call before 8am or after 9pm. If you tell them that your employer doesn't approve of personal calls, they can't contact you at work.
They can't embarrass you. They can only ask others for your phone number or mailing address. They can't say that you haven't paid your bills.
When they contact you they cannot use foul language. No physical threats to you or your reputation. They can't say that you'll be thrown in jail or demand a post-dated check. In short, all they can really do is bug you a bit to collect the debt. Please understand that we're not saying that Sheri or anyone else shouldn't pay their debts. We're just pointing out that you don't need to tolerate abusive collection practices.
Getting the debt collector off her back is only the first issue for Sheri. The second one is to make sure that her reputation isn't being harmed. She'll need a good report the next time she applies for credit.
Sheri needs to find out why she's being contacted by a collection agency. Either the landlord isn't aware that she's paid them fully or there has been a miscommunication between the landlord and the collection agency. The fact that a judgement is involved could be the cause of the confusion. But it's also a good way for her to document how much was owed.
In any case, Sheri's credit rating could be seriously hurt if incorrect data is allowed to stand without challenge in her credit file.
To find out what's in her file she'll need to get a copy of her credit report. It'll cost about $8.50 depending on where she lives. There are three large credit rating companies. Sheri can order the report by phone and pay with a credit card. They can be found at: Equifax 800-685-1111; Experian National Consumer Assistance Center(Formerly TRW)800-682-7654; or TransUnion 800-888-4213.
Once Sheri gets the report she'll need to make sure that the lease is either not mentioned at all, or is shown as closed by full payment. If her landlord wasn't a corporation it's possible that she won't find an entry in the report.
If she does find that it shows the lease as still owed or in dispute, she'll need to write two letters. One to the former landlord asking him to notify the credit bureau that he's been paid.
A second letter to the credit reporting agency should explain what happened. Sheri will want to include copies of the court decision and her cancelled check proving payment. At that point the credit reporting agency will be required to change the status of the entry and include her side of the story.
Since Sheri is recently divorced she should also check the credit report for any other problems that might relate to her ex-husband. Problems can occur when couples split. Just because your ex said that he would pay a bill on a joint account doesn't mean that it was actually paid. It's a lot easier to get things straightened out before the collection agencies start to call.
Sheri's in a pretty good position to solve this problem. One letter will stop the harassing phone calls from the collection agency. And a check of her credit report will make sure that she doesn't have problems with this the next time she wants to apply for credit.
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.
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