Four things older Americans can do about debt collection problems

If you’re an older American and you’re having trouble with debt collectors, you’re not alone. Since July 2013, older Americans have submitted approximately 8,700 complaints to us about debt collection.

We looked at these complaints and described the most common problems that consumers are experiencing in our snapshot of debt collection complaints submitted by older consumers.

People’s complaints often express grief, confusion, and frustration regarding the collection of medical debt, debt of deceased family members, and even suspicious calls from individuals who claim to be collectors.

Here’s what you or your loved ones can do when experiencing debt collection problems:

1. Get more information if you don’t recognize the debt

Older consumers report that debt collectors may have inaccurate or inadequate information, and sometimes don’t provide sufficient information to help them identify the debt. Almost one-third of the older consumers who submitted a complaint couldn’t identify the debt being collected.

First things first! Ask the debt collector for the company’s name and address. If the debt collector refuses to give you this information, you may be dealing with a fraud. If you think that a caller may be a fake debt collector:

Ask the caller for his or her name, company, street address, telephone number, and professional license number.

If you have the company’s name and address but you don’t recognize the debt, ask for more information in writing. You can start by using this sample letter .

Send this letter as soon as you can — if at all possible, within 30 days of when a debt collector contacts you the first time about a debt.

2. Dispute the debt if it’s not yours or if the amount is wrong

You can write a letter disputing the debt or any portion of the debt. It’s important to do so as soon as possible after you’re first contacted, and to keep copies of any letters you send.

If you dispute a debt (or part of a debt) in writing within 30 days of when you receive the required information from the debt collector, the debt collector cannot call or contact you until after the debt collector has obtained verification of the debt and has provided the verification of the debt in writing to you. You can use this sample letter.

3. Stop harassing and/or offensive calls

Older consumers told us that debt collectors sometimes refuse to take “No” for an answer, reporting in their complaints that collectors often use offensive language and make threats. To one extreme, we’ve also heard about collectors making successive calls using profanity or derogatory names.

You don’t have to put up with it. You can send a letter to the debt collector telling it to stop contacting you. If you dispute the amount due, or you don’t believe that it’s your debt, put that in the letter, too. You can use this sample letter.

Telling a debt collector to stop contacting you does not stop the collection, including the filing of a lawsuit against you or reporting negative information to a credit reporting company.

4. Know your rights: Your federal benefits have many protections from garnishment in collection

Many older consumers rely on Social Security or other federal benefits and frequently complained that debt collectors threatened them with garnishment of these benefits. Most federal benefits, such as Social Security, Veterans’ (VA) benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, are protected in debt collection. There are exceptions for, among other things, money owed in child support, spousal support, federal student loans, or for federal taxes.

When you receive federal benefits by direct deposit to your checking account, your bank or credit union is required automatically to protect up to two months of these benefits that are directly deposited into your account. If you receive your benefits on a government issued prepaid card, they usually are protected too. Some exceptions may exist for debts owed to a federal or state agency.

If you’re not sure if your federal benefits are being wrongfully garnished, you should seek legal advice.

Here’s how you can find a lawyer:

Learn more about your rights when it comes to debt collection.

You can also:

  • Submit a debt collection complaint online or by calling (855) 411-2372. We’ll forward your issue to the company and work to get you a response, give you a tracking number, and keep you updated on the status of your complaint.
  • Tell us your story, good or bad, about your experience with consumer financial products. We hear from many Americans every day and we’d like to hear your story.

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