By the time people dealing with debt collectors turn to the Montana Legal Services Association for help, it's often too late.
"They struggle for as long as they can before calling,'' said Mike Eakin, director of the group's litigation division. They've been sued, a judgment has been issued, and wages are being garnisheed, he said.
MLSA provides advice and representation for low-income clients and refers cases to private attorneys.
Eakin estimates that 90 percent of collection suits in Montana end in default judgments for the debt collector because the consumer doesn't respond. Then, said Jennifer Beardsley, MLSA's consumer protection attorney, "they call us and don't know what to do. It's stressful."
Consumers have rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, deceptive or unfair practices to collect money.
A debt collector is anyone that collects debts for others; companies that collect their own debts do not have to follow the same laws as debt collectors.
Montana Legal Services offers tips on consumers' rights and what debt collectors can and can't do.
Debt collectors can:
• Contact the debtor until they receive a letter telling them to stop.
• Sue the debtor.
• Garnish wages or bank accounts if they win court judgments.
• Share information about a consumer's debt with a credit bureau.
Debt collectors cannot:
• Call debtors before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
• Keep calling to harass the consumer.
• Threaten or swear at the consumer.
• Speak to the consumer without identifying that they are debt collectors.
• Make the consumer accept collect calls.
• Say it's a crime not to pay the debt.
• Threaten arrest.
• Pretend to be attorneys or government officials.
• Talk to others about the consumer's debt, including co-workers, neighbors and family members other than a spouse.
• Ask the debt collector for proof, in writing, of debt.
• Find out if any of his or her income is protected from a court judgment. Protected money includes many federal benefits including Social Security, veterans benefits and child support.
• Make a deal with the debt collector if the collector can prove the money is owed. Explain the situation and offer to make lower payments.
• Write a letter telling the debt collector to stop contact.
• Document in writing any harassment.