Debt collectors don't have easy jobs. They're tasked with tracking down people who often don't want to be tracked down and don't want to pay up.
But that doesn't mean they can do whatever they think it would take to get you to write a check, like harass you at work, call at all hours or even threaten to send you to jail.
Collectors who cross the line are in the crosshairs of federal authorities, who are threatening to do whatever they need to do to make sure collection attempts are done within the law.
"Debt collection activities play an essential role in this system. Without them, credit would be harder to come by and more expensive," Corey Stone, an assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, testified Wednesday at a Senate committee hearing. "Our job is to assure that consumers are not subjected to collection of debts they do not owe or to debts in the wrong amount or that have already been paid."
The agency is considering whether additional rules are necessary to protect consumers who face collections.
If people don't pay their bills, they should face collections. Companies have every right to try to get what they are owed. But they must do it within the law.
Increased oversight would be welcome by some Lehigh Valley residents who have had run-ins with debt collectors.
A Slatington woman told me she had been scared into paying about $1,000 she didn't owe and was continually threatened with arrest or worse.
"They called me repeatedly, threatening my life, the life of my children and the lives of my family," said the woman, who asked that I not name her because she is a senior citizen and feared for her safety.
While that attempt may actually have been a scam as opposed to a heavy-handed collector, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last week issued bulletins saying it intends to monitor debt collectors for just that type of "unlawful conduct." The bulletins were intended to remind collectors they can't threaten action they don't have the authority to take, such as making false threats of lawsuits, arrest or imprisonment.
The bulletins warned collectors not to misrepresent who owns the debt and how much is owed, and to avoid making deceptive statements about how paying a debt will impact someone's creditworthiness.
The agency last week also began taking complaints from the public about debt collectors, and released form letters for people to use when corresponding with collectors.
Debt collectors were not represented at Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection.
ACA International, a trade association, said in a statement on its website last week that its members "believe consumers have important rights under federal and state law and deserve to be treated fairly, respectfully and free of deception or abuse."
The industry takes consumer complaints seriously, ACA International CEO Pat Morris said in the statement, and believes the complaint process set up by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau "will be an important tool to help consumers and debt collectors collaborate to resolve concerns."
Also last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had reached a settlement with what it described as the world's largest debt collection operation, which was accused of harassing people with illegal collections calls.
Expert Global Solutions and its subsidiaries did not admit or deny the accusations but agreed to pay a $3.2 million fine. They were accused of calling people multiple times per day, late at night or early in the morning, and after being asked not to call. The FTC alleged the companies continued collections efforts without verifying debts, and left phone messages disclosing the debtor's name and existence of the debt to third parties.
Several people who contacted the Watchdog about debt collectors believed they were being targeted by scammers.
A Whitehall Township man got calls about an unpaid college loan which he said he didn't have. He didn't want to provide any information to the caller, fearing it might be used against him.
The collection agency told me it couldn't discuss his account for privacy reasons, but the calls stopped after my inquiry.
As bad debts are passed from one collection agency to another, the original paper trail can be lost. So it's hard to say whether situations like this are attempted fraud.
The need for "robust national documentation standards" is something the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is looking into as it considers drafting new rules for debt collectors, Stone testified Wednesday.
If a debt collector contacts you, don't panic or let them scare you. If you aren't familiar with the bill they're talking about, ask for proof that you owe it. The law allows you to tell the collector not to contact you again until it provides proof you owe the debt.
You also have a right to tell a collector not to contact you at a time or place that is inconvenient, such as your job, or to contact your lawyer. You also can tell the collector not to contact you at all, but that won't make the debt go away.
The form letters offered last week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help you make these points
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me at email@example.com, 610-841-2364 or The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. I'm on Twitter @mcwatchdog and Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.
Dealing with debt collectors
Submit a complaint about a debt collector at 855-411-2372 or http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint
Get form letters to correspond with debt collectors at http://www.consumerfinance.gov