Bill collectors hound father over his son's old auto loan

CONSUMING INTERESTS

December 16, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

When Gordon Crooks' son moved out of the family home in Cockeysville eight years ago, his boyhood bedroom wasn't the only thing he left behind.

The son also left his father to grapple with belligerent and threatening debt collectors for a debt that may or may not be owed.

"They're pretty aggressive," said Crooks, 76, a retired self-employed wholesale distributor. "I keep telling them my son doesn't live here anymore, but they keep calling."

Crooks' son declined to talk to me about the alleged debt, so we're not going to name him and we're going to have to go by his father's word. Apparently, the son borrowed money to purchase a broken-down-junk-heap of a car nine or 10 years ago that the dealership took back, Crooks said.

Crooks said he did not co-sign for the loan or have any connection to the loan other than the fact that his son lived under his roof at the time. But being dutiful parents, Crooks said, he and his wife hired an attorney for his son to help resolve the issue.

At the time, the company that financed the car declined to take any action, so Crooks said he thought that was the end of it.

Then the calls began after his son moved out.

A debt-collection agency began contacting Crooks. When he explained that it wasn't his debt, they asked for his Social Security number. When he insisted the debt wasn't his, they continued to call looking for his son.

"There was no way I was giving anyone my Social Security number over the telephone," Crooks said. He wouldn't divulge information about his son's whereabouts, either.

When Crooks told them to stop calling, he said the inquiries would subside for awhile and then start up again.

"I don't understand why I'm being harassed," Crooks said. "I don't deny that he is my son, but they won't take no for an answer."

There's good news and bad news for Crooks.

The good news is the laws are very specific about what debt collectors can and can't do. The bad news is that these debt collectors are allowed to call Crooks Sr. - but only up to a point.

"Consumers should know that they can't come after family for a debt," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy group in San Diego. "Unless you co-signed for the loan - in which case, it means you stand in the shoes of the individual applying for the loan - you're under no obligation to pay for the debt.

"The debt collectors can contact anybody who they think might know the location of the person who owes the money, but you're under no obligation to provide that information to them," Stephens said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act "requires that debt collectors treat you fairly and prohibits certain methods of debt collection. Of course, the law does not erase any legitimate debt you owe."

The law also states that debt collectors may contact an attorney, rather than the debtor. But if there is no attorney, the collector "may contact other people, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Collectors usually are prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once. In most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney that you owe money."

The key word in that paragraph is "usually." Technically, debt collectors have the right to call family, friends, neighbors and employers only to get a debtor's location, address and phone number. They are, however, strictly limited by what information they reveal about the debtor. They may not state that the debtor they are searching for owes any money.

Now at what point the calls to Crooks became "harassing" might be hard to prove, since Crooks hasn't kept a detailed list of the callers and the companies could legitimately say they were trying to find his son.

But in most cases, informing the debt collection agency that they must stop calling should do the trick. It would be smart to make it official by using one of the sample letters found on the Clearinghouse Web site at privacyrights.org and send it by certified mail to stop the agency from calling again.

But, the problem with debt is that "debt will get sold to a different company and then you're dealing with a different entity," Stephens said. "When the debt gets re-sold, it's sold for pennies on the dollar and it's up to the next company that paid for that debt to try and collect on it. Unfortunately, your instructions don't carry over from one debt collector to another."

What that means is that Crooks may have to keep informing new debt collectors that the debt is not his and that they must stop calling him.

It's an annoyance, but one Crooks will likely have to put up with until the collector gives up or the statute of limitations runs out on the debt. (Time limits can get complicated depending on where the debt originated, Stephens said, but every state has laws governing the time in which a person or entity can file suit to collect a debt.)

What Crooks doesn't have to do, however, is put up with a pushy debt collector. It's clear under the law that debt collectors may not "use threats of violence or harm; publish a list of consumers who refuse to pay their debts (except to a credit bureau); and use obscene or profane language or repeatedly use the telephone to annoy someone." They certainly may not demand your Social Security number. And they can't demand you help them find someone else.

If reminding the debt collector of such unsavory practices doesn't work, Crooks can sue or report the problem company to the attorney general's office or the FTC.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun .com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Read more of Dan Thanh Dang's consumer report columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming

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