|If you get the dreaded debt collector call, don't panic -- just keep your wits about you.|
"First, have the debt collector explicitly identify him or herself: Who they are, where they're calling from, why they're calling and the nature of the debt," he says. "You as a citizen have the right to ask these questions." Doing so accomplishes two things. First, asking for his or her information establishes accountability in the event the collector becomes abusive in any way (and Bartmann also suggests asking if you can record the conversation -- even if you don't have a recording device, bluffing that you do is a good way to keep him or her honest). Secondly, you want to get information you may need to establish the nature of your debt and clear up misunderstandings. "Determine if it is even your bill," he says. "It may be someone with a similar name, or it might be an identity theft crisis." If you're at all unclear about the circumstances surrounding the debt, don't hesitate to get off the phone to gather further information. Don't be pressured into settling the debt or giving up financial information before you're ready. Find a way to settle
If you establish you do indeed owe money, you'll need to find a way to pay it off. How much of the debt you actually need to pay off will depend on who owns it. If it's your original creditor (for instance, a bank), you have very little leeway; if, however, several months have elapsed and the bank decided to sell off the debt to a third party, you have a lot more wiggle room. Bartmann notes that in situations such as these, a creditor will sell the debt for as little as a nickel on the dollar. So even though the collection agency will likely ask you to pay the full debt, the truth is that they can get a fraction of the total amount and still turn a profit.
Hopefully getting the debt collector's name and asking to record the conversation is enough to keep him or her from growing abusive. But if the debt collector chooses to turn to more aggressive tactics, there are ways to deal with it. "Sadly, there are collectors who aren't very smart, and they will yell, scream, use racial slurs, even make threats of violence," he says. "When that happens, the consumer does not have to tolerate it." For starters, you can threaten to call the Better Business Bureau in the collector's area (which you should know, having gathered the name, company and location of the debt collector earlier in the phone call). From there you can escalate to threatening to call the attorney general in that person's state, as Bartmann notes that every attorney general's office will have a consumer protection division of some kind that should be used to dealing with debt collectors. And you can even go all the way up to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new federal agency that has taken an aggressive stance against bad debt collectors. Don't hesitate to act on all three threats. And Bartmann says you can also protect yourself by getting a lawyer. While that may seem difficult if you're in dire financial straits, he points out that most areas will have a legal aid society of some kind that is used to dealing with such issues. Going to them -- preferably with a recording of the debt collector's abusive behavior -- can be a great way to get a rogue debt collector off your back. Most of all, don't let yourself get intimidated. >To submit a news tip, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.