Protecting yourself

Phone line makes me popular with debt collectors

Jeremy Simon

Everyone else may be embracing new technology, but I’ve decided to move backward. After several years of relying exclusively on a cell phone for my personal calls, I recently added home phone service via a landline.

rotary phone.jpgBefore you assume I’m turning Amish, I should point out that I had some good reasons for embracing ye olde phone. First of all, I hoped that with everyone going cellular, I might be able to get a good deal when bundling said phone service with Internet access. That would also enable me to lower my cell phone plan minutes, since I’d be making all calls from home on my landline. Finally, my phone line would mean no more radiation zapping my brain every time I felt like talking to someone.

But after getting my landline installed, I found another “benefit” that I hadn’t expected — becoming popular with debt collectors.

While I can only assume many of the missed calls I get from 866 area codes are from close friends who have simply opted to hide their true identities when calling me, I recently found out for sure one of my new phone friends is, in fact, a debt collector. That’s because in his voice mail message for someone named “Jean” or “John” Simon, he explicitly said he was seeking to collect a debt on behalf of collection agency NCO.

After consulting with my colleague who has written about debt collections issues, I called NCO back the next day to see if leaving a message on voicemail violates the portion of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act that addresses communication with people other than the debtor. According to the law, “a debt collector may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than a consumer, his attorney, a consumer reporting agency if otherwise permitted by law, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector.” Certainly sounds like leaving a message on an answering machine would violate that rule, since anyone within earshot when I played back the message would think I was a deadbeat.

However, the NCO representative I spoke with said not only did leaving a message not violate the law, it was in fact required by it. He also said that since my name wasn’t actually in their system, he’d remove my number from NCO’s records. (So far, I haven’t gotten another message from them.)

I wasn’t done with my quest and decided to contact the Federal Trade Commission. But as consumers are well aware, getting a straightforward answer is rarely a straightforward process, and the FTC in turn referred me to debt collection industry trade group ACA International, the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals.

Based on the ACA’s response, it seems like NCO didn’t do anything wrong. ACA spokesman John Nemo told me in an e-mail that consumers who are incorrectly targeted by debt collectors should contact the collection agency and let them know that they have the wrong person. Nemo says these consumers should consider following up with a letter informing the debt collector that they have the wrong consumer.

In the case of borrowers who are correctly contacted about a debt but just don’t want to hear from the debt collector, Nemo again urges sending a letter. “The consumer should directly send the debt collector a written letter stating the consumer is requesting the debt collector cease communications with the consumer in connection with the collection of the debt,” Nemo says.

This all still seems a little fuzzy to me — and it’s probably not entirely due to years of cell phone radiation. After all, why is leaving a message for anyone to hear not in violation of the law? What about Jean or John — am I not a “third party” now made aware of their apparent debt problems?

Have any of you had a similar problem with messages from a debt collector?

Update (5/12/09): Well, the calls from NCO stopped. But in their place, I was getting bombarded with calls from an unlisted number, which I found out was associated with Bank of America (which is not — and has never been — my bank) by ringing them back. These calls produced hang-ups on my answering machine and requests for another, unknown “Simon” when I answered. Since they had the wrong person, I requested that the callers I spoke to remove me from their list. Still, the calls continued.

This weekend, completely fed up, I called AT&T directly to see what additional options I had to block these unwanted calls. I found out I qualified for a free service known as privacy manager, which aims to prevent calls from numbers that appear as “anonymous, unavailable, out-of-area or private, and makes callers identify themselves in order to complete the call.” I happily signed up. Here’s hoping it discourages these callers.

See related: Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, I’m not a deadbeat, but I play one on my cell phone, Debt collection sample letters, How the Amish deal with credit cards and the credit crunch

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  • character matters

    I got some calls too when I first got my current phone number. I just told the collection agencies that I wasn’t who they were looking for and the calls stopped.
    What’s the big deal?

  • Well, in my case, they were robo-collection calls — multiple, automated daily messages that demanded I call an 800 number.
    The deadbeat who had the number had run out on several loans, and had used the cell number as his contact information.
    When you call the 800 number, you go through a menu system that requires you to enter the account number. BUT I DIDN’T HAVE AN ACCOUNT!!! So I couldn’t get through to tell them to stop.
    I finally had to get a new number.
    I wrote about the experience of being a deadbeat, once removed, here:

  • Robert

    We started getting these calls as soon as we moved into a new house. At some point we were getting 10 calls a day, seeking “Tiffany.” Robo-calls, call centers, boiler rooms, you name it. We’d patiently explain we just got the number and weren’t the person they were after. This was met with skepticism, pleas, threats, offers of prizes, etc. This went on for 3 years. We called Qwest last week to get a new number. Within 2 hours of activating the new number we got an 866 call, this time looking for “Janet.” Four more calls came within the first 2 days. Unbelievable. We’re thinking of canceling the landline.

  • Carrie

    Sad. I have been experiencing the same thing as the other people have stated.
    My biggest problem is those automated calls that you have to have the account number or what ever. I figured out the company of one of those callers and called them. They then gave me INSTRUCTIONS on how to get the calls to cease because they personally couldn’t stop the calls.
    I called them back and got the same person. I asked to speak to their manager and was asked why. I explained what was happening and the person offered to make it stop by ceasing all calls and taking my number off the list.
    Why couldn’t she do that in the first place?
    Now I am getting calls from 866-441-6228. If you put that number into your browser you will find that I am not the only one getting these calls. Turns out it isn’t actually a collection company, just someone pretending to be one.
    I don’t understand why I have to be the one to call all these companies to make them stop calling me. They are at least all calling for the same person. I got so sick of it I put my number on the do not call list, and the calls increased!
    grrr… I’m now getting about 11 calls a day. I’m paying a lot of money for one or two “real” calls a day.

  • Brenda

    OMG I have the same problem with some deadbeat’s collecton calls on my new land lines. This is the forth time I have changed my number within a year trying to get away from the same problem everyone else here is having. I did try waiting it out and explaining situation to all the bill collectors for 6 months on one number. It didn’t work. Now with my newest number I’m getting same problem, bill collectors and robo calls. I’m ready to give up and go back to expensive cell phone.