Abusive Debt Collection and the Elderly

Debt collection is a huge industry in the United States with over 4,500 debt collection firms across the country.  This multi-billion dollar business creates a tremendous amount of competition between debt collection firms to be successful. In many cases, firms push their employees to do “whatever is necessary” to collect a debt.  However, federal law prevents debt collectors from taking certain actions to collect a debt.

What is Abusive Debt Collection?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prevents debt collectors from taking certain actions when attempting to collect a debt. The law is designed to prevent debt collectors from harassing consumers to collect a debt.  Examples of abusive practices include, but are not limited to:

  • Threatening you with violence or harm
  • Using profane or obscene language;
  • Threatening to have you arrested;
  • Publishing the details of the debt owed stating you refuse to pay the debt (this does not including reporting the information to a credit reporting agency);
  • Concealing the identity of the person calling you;
  • Repetitive telephone calls with the intent to harass or annoy you;
  • Claiming to be an attorney or government official when they are not;
  • Threatening to take actions that are illegal or that they have no intention of taking; and,
  • Contacting your employer when they have been told not to do so.

Penalties for violations of the FDCPA can include damages and attorney’s fees if you sue the debt collector and win.

Debt Collectors Abusing the Elderly

If you have been harassed by a debt collector, you understand the amount of stress this can cause for you and for your family.  For the elderly, being harassed by a debt collector can be overwhelming causing fear, stress, and anxiety.  In some cases, the stress can result in health problems or the aggravation of existing health problems.

According to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office for Older Americans, one of the top complaints of senior citizens struggling with debt problems is debt collectors — one out of every three complaints filed relate to debt collectors. Complaints ranged from debt collectors threatening to garnish federal benefits to general harassment. Elderly people with cognitive impairments are more vulnerable to the abusive debt practices of debt collectors.

Unfortunately, as people are moving into their retirement with debt, the problem continues to increase.  Senior citizens on a fixed income have a difficult time paying debts, especially for those who have increased medical costs. According to Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), “It is increasingly common for older Americans to carry debts into their retirement years, and consumers living on fixed incomes often struggle to pay off these debts. Older Americans deserve to be treated with the respect they have earned.”

Examples of Abusive and Illegal Debt Collection Tactics

Anyone can be a victim of abusive debt collection practices; however, elderly consumers register more complaints with the CFPB than any other demographic.  Below are just a few of the various types of abusive collection practices that have been reported to the CFPB by elderly consumers.

  • Threatening to garnish income. Debt collectors know if they threaten to garnish a person’s wages, that person will be more likely to repay the debt, or at least a portion of that debt, out of fear. Many senior citizens do not understand that a debt collector cannot garnish Social Security income or benefits. Furthermore, most retirement accounts are also exempt from garnishment.  Some debt collectors threaten to sue the person to obtain a judgment to garnish income as an added level of threat.  This is also illegal.
  • Collector debts of a deceased person. It is devastating when a person loses his or her spouse but debt collectors use this tragedy to collect debts from the elderly. Unless the surviving spouse co-signed the debt or agreed to be personally liable for the debt, a debt collector cannot force the surviving spouse to repay the debt. The credit can file a claim against the decedent’s estate; however, if the funds are not available to pay the claim from the estate, the surviving spouse is not required to use his or her personal funds to pay the debt.
  • Collecting expired debts. Most debts have an “expiration date” meaning they are too old to collect. A debt collector is supposed to disclose the fact that the debt is too old to be collected but they typically leave this information out when demanding payment. Chances are if an elderly person owed a debt from when their children were in college, the debt is too old to be collected.
  • Abuse, harassment, etc. Debt collectors can be very mean to the elderly. They assume that the elderly do not understand their rights regarding fair debt collections. They also assume they can frighten the person or harass the person to the point where he or she will borrow money or do without medicine, food or other necessities just to pay the debt.  If you know an elderly person, it is important that you make sure that person knows his or her rights and knows what to do if a debt collector calls.

What Can Elderly Victim’s of Abusive Debt Collections Do to Stop the Abuse?

Regardless of whether you owe the debt or not, debt collectors must obey the law regarding fair debt collection practices.  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, as well as several other laws, provide protections against abusive actions by debt collectors. You can file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General for Texas, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Unfortunately, filing a complaint may do very little to stop the abusive collection practices. Your best option is to contact the attorneys of Weston Legal, PLLC to discuss your legal rights and your options to file a lawsuit against the debt collector to recover compensation for your damages.

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