Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Consumers often get caught up in the spirit of giving this time of year, and it is easy to just buy one more gift for a loved one.
The best way to avoid going into debt during the holidays is to set a budget and then stick with it. Before going out to the stores, make a list of who you want to buy for and what you want to buy. If you want to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase, make sure it falls within your budget.
For consumers who already have debt problems, remember that debt collectors, including original creditors under West Virginia law, may not:
• Contact you repeatedly by phone with the intent to abuse or harass you.
• Use obscene or threatening language with consumers.
• Tell others how much debt you have, either verbally or in writing.
• Contact you at work if you or your employer has told them not to.
• Refuse or fail to identify themselves and for whom they work.
• Threaten to add additional fees, seize property or file criminal charges for failure to pay within a set timeframe.
• Threaten physical harm if you do not pay a debt.
• Contact you if you have a lawyer.
Collection agencies must adhere to the following additional rules as part of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:
• Calls before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. are prohibited.
• Debt collectors must send a written notice stating the amount of the debt, the creditor to whom the debt is owed, and a statement that the debtor has 30 days to dispute the debt, in writing.
• If the debt collection agency receives a written dispute letter from the consumer within the 30 day period, the debt collector must send verification of the debt to the alleged debtor. The collector may not attempt to collect the alleged debt until that proof is sent.
• Any and all communications, including telephone calls and letters, must immediately stop once a debt collector receives a “cease and desist” letter from you. Cease and desist letters are effective once received by the collection agency.
They can be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested to establish a “paper trail.” The “cease and desist” letter has no effect if the collector is the original creditor.
• Debt collectors must state in the initial communication “This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”
In subsequent communications the collector must disclose it is a debt collector. Debt collectors may not use fictitious company names, but rather must use the true company name.
• Once a collector is told an individual is represented by an attorney all conversations, messages, letters or any other communication must immediately stop with the consumer by the collection agency.
Under West Virginia law, original creditors, not just collection agencies, also must stop contacting the debtor when it appears the debtor is represented by a lawyer and the lawyer’s name and address is known or could be easily ascertained.
Our office regularly gets complaints from consumers who say they are being harassed by debt collectors.
While people should always pay what they owe, collectors also must abide by the law and treat citizens with respect. Most consumers in West Virginia who are having financial trouble want to pay their debts and avoid new debts.
If you feel as though you are being harassed by a debt collector, call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division toll free at 800-368-8808.
Attorney General of West Virginia