For more than a year now, I’ve been living with constant calls from debt collectors, but the
calls are for a man named William. No matter how many times I tell the callers they’ve got
the wrong number, they keep calling back.
Sometimes they will politely apologize and promise to take my number off their list. Other
times they just hang up. Lately, all the calls I’ve received have been robocalls, and so now
I can’t even get a live person on the line to tell them to stop. The pre-recorded messages
either ask me to hang up if I’m not William or tell me to press a number indicating I’m him.
I’ve been tempted to declare I’m him in order to talk to a live person, but I haven’t made
that leap yet. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever be able to get them to stop.
According to some consumer advocates, it’s not likely — unless I’m willing to take the
collectors who keep hounding me to court.
Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors are required to stop contacting
you if you send a letter requesting that they do so. (The CFPB has drafted sample letters you
can use as a template.) But that can be a major challenge if, like me, you’re receiving
robocalls that make it next to impossible to know who’s calling you in the first place.
According to The National Consumer Law Center’s Margot Saunders, automated calls are a
serious problem for consumers being hounded by collectors for debts they don’t owe. In Nov.
17 comments to the Federal Communications Commission, Saunders outlined some of the problems
consumers face when they receive automated calls from debt collectors.
“As with non-collection calls, many collection agencies’ automated calls use prerecorded
messages that do not provide a mechanism for the consumer to actually ask that the calling
stop,” wrote Saunders in the filing. “More often than not, debt collection robocalls instruct
the recipient to hang up if they are not the debtor, and many creditors and collection
agencies, as a matter of policy, refuse to speak with anyone other than the debtor.”
“Even worse, many consumers report that when they are able to speak with a representative to
notify the collector that it is calling the wrong number and request that calls stop, such
requests are ignored because the debt collector refuses to believe that the consumer is not
Sometimes collectors will even call a number again after they’ve been told it doesn’t belong
to the debtor just to “confirm” it’s really a wrong number. Other times, collection companies
will provide consumers with a number to call if they’re receiving messages for someone else.
“But then — apart from putting the onus on the consumer to take affirmative action to get
the already prohibited calls to stop — [the company] fails to have an operating do-not-call
mechanism when the consumer actually calls,” wrote Saunders.
When I recently told Saunders about my own predicament with wrong-number-debt-collection
calls, she said that she too has had trouble trying to figure out who’s making the automated
calls. “In my own experience, as soon as I ask, they hang up,” she wrote in an email.
What you can do
Luckily, there are protections available if your phone is being bombarded with automated
calls, but you may have to go through a lawyer to take advantage of them.
Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, callers are forbidden from making robocalls
unless you’ve consented to the calls by supplying your telephone number or have a pre-
existing relationship with the caller. So if you’re receiving automated debt collection calls
for debts that aren’t yours, you should be able to sue for damages.
But according to Saunders, “the FCC is under considerable pressure to relax these rules.” For
example, both ACA International, which represents debt collection companies, and the American
Bankers Association are petitioning the FCC to make changes to how the law is interpreted so
that it’s harder to sue autodialers for making wrong number calls.
You can try filing complaints with the FCC, the FTC and the CFPB, says Saunders. Or you can
try complaining to your state’s attorney general. But, “this all requires that you know who
is calling you,” Saunders notes.
You may be able to get hold of a live representative and ask what company they’re from if you
pretend to be the debtor and stay on the line the next time you receive an automated call.
But if the caller refuses to tell you who they are, you could be out of luck. “Other than
asking a caller or going to an expert — generally a lawyer who does this type of work — I
don’t know how else to find out who is calling,” said Saunders.