November 20, 2017

FDCPA Does Not Give Debt Collector the Right to Leave Messages on Your Phone Answering Machine

Answering machine blinkingAs you may know, there are both federal and state laws that offer a variety of protections to individuals who are in debt and who are being dunned by debt collectors.  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act offers a variety of protections in cases involving collection agencies (as opposed to the actual creditor).  In other words, a credit card company can do and say certain things and remain legal, but if a collection agency does or says the exact same things, those actions would be a violation of the FDCPA and make the collection agency subject to a claim for damages.

Two of the protections provided by the FDCPA include:

  • a prohibition against communicating with a debtor when the collection agency employee does not identify himself as a debt collector; and
  • communicating about your debt with third parties

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (which provides controlling precedent for Georgia) recently issued an important decision that struck down a somewhat bizarre argument by a debt collector regarding phone messages.  This case benefits consumers by clarifying the rules about telephone messages by bill collectors.

The case of Edwards v. Niagara Credit Solutions involved a situation in which the debt collector (Niagara) left “bare bones” messages on a phone answering machine asking Ms. Edwards to call back about an “important matter.”

Niagara argued that its employee did not identify itself as a debt collector because someone other than the debtor might hear the message, thus violating the “third party communications” prohibition. [Read more…]

Alternatives to Bankruptcy if Your Debt is Less than $20,000

On a fairly regular basis, I get calls from potential bankruptcy clients who don’t really have enough debt to justify the time and expense of bankruptcy.  For example, if your only debt is a delinquent $7,500 credit card bill, it hardly makes sense to spend $1,500 to $2,000 for a Chapter 7 case.  Similarly, it makes no sense to spend $3,500 to $4,000 for a Chapter 13, especially if you would end up paying back 100% of the debt anyway.

What, then, are your alternatives?

Debt negotiation is one alternative.  Someone once told me that "everything is negotiable" and that is especially true when it comes to credit card lenders.  My experience, however, has been that you will find it difficult to convince a credit card lender to negotiate if you are current with your account.   When you get to three or four months delinquent, you may find that the credit card lender will talk to you seriously about a reduced lump sum payoff or some type of payment plan.  The problem with this, of course, is that your credit score will take a major hit and you will have to deal with those harassing phone calls.

Another problem – who is going to do the negotiation?  You can certainly try to negotiate your own account, but this can be difficult as you are the subject of the negotiation and you are emotionally involved therein.  There are vendors out there who say that they will do debt negotiation, but I think you need to be careful there too.  I have met with several clients over the years who have tried this route, all with very mixed results.  Several of these companies have been sued by the attorneys general in several states. 

Consumer Credit Counseling is not really a negotiation service – they are funded by the credit card companies and my sense is that their goal is primarily to take some of the heat off while you enter into a payment plan that pretty much pays back everyone 100%.

Recently I have noted that several law firms (none in Georgia, to my knowledge) have added debt negotiation to their menu of services.  For example, the Michigan law firm of Thav, Gross, Steinway and Bennett has a separate law firm called StopCreditorCalls.com and has posted several compelling videos on YouTube discussing their negotiation services. 

An Alabama consumer law firm, The Watts Law Group and M. Stan Herring, publishes a very informative blog about consumer protection.  Recently, Attorneys Watts and Herring have written a series of blog posts about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and have identified common types of violations.  In the case of FDCPA violations, it may be that a negotiation over a relatively small credit card debt may turn into an FDCPA claim – it would not surprise me if a settlement of an FDCPA claim involved a reduction in the outstanding balance or favorable terms for the debtor.

So, if you have a relatively small amount of debt (less than $20,000 of unsecured debt) I think it is wise to strongly consider non-bankruptcy alternatives as a more cost effective solution.

However, I am still looking for specific solutions.  If you were able to work out a resolution of your credit card debt outside of bankruptcy, or if you are a lawyer who can speak about non-bankruptcy alternatives, I’d love to hear from you.

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