OLR Research Report


October 14, 2005

 

2005-R-0745

HARASSING TELEPHONE CALLS FROM BILL COLLECTORS

By: Soncia Coleman, Research Analyst

You wanted to know an individual's options if he is receiving harassing phone calls from debt collectors.

The Office of Legislative Research does not give legal opinions and the following should not be considered as one.

SUMMARY

Connecticut and federal law regulate debt collection practices extensively and specify in detail what consumer collection agencies, which work for creditors in attempting to collect debts from consumer debtors, can and cannot do. The laws are basically identical in what the agencies can do in trying to collect a debt. Collection agencies may not engage in abusive, harassing, fraudulent, deceptive, misleading, or unfair practices. The federal law and state regulations specify how the agencies must conduct themselves in communicating with the debtor about the debt. They list specific actions that constitute harassment, abuse or fraud, such as threatening violence, making repeated phone calls at inconvenient hours, making false representations, or falsely threatening legal action. The federal law does not preempt state law unless the two laws are inconsistent.

State law also imposes similar restrictions on the actual creditors and their assignees (if the initial creditor has sold the debt to another company.)

The federal law is enforced mainly by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and aggrieved individuals may file a complaint with that agency. The federal law also gives private individuals the right to sue and sets the civil damages that a court can award in these cases. State law gives the state banking commissioner numerous enforcement powers and sets maximum penalties for violating the state provisions. Individuals can file complaints with the Connecticut Department of Banking as well.

COMMUNICATION AND HARASSMENT

Communications with the Debtor

Without the debtor's prior consent or a court's express permission, a creditor or collection agency may not communicate with a debtor about collecting any debt:

1. at an unusual time or place or at a time or place known or that should be known to be inconvenient to the debtor (unless he knows otherwise, a creditor or collector must assume that a convenient time is after 8 a.m. and before 9 p.m.);

2. if he knows the debtor is represented in this matter by an attorney and knows the attorney's name and address, or can readily ascertain it, unless the attorney fails to respond to the collector's communication or unless the attorney or the debtor consents to direct communication; or

3. at the debtor's place of employment if the creditor or collector knows or should know that the employer prohibits employees from receiving such communication (Conn. Agencies Reg. 36a-647-4(a), 36a-809-3(d)(1), 15 U.S.C.A. 1692c).

Ceasing Communications

A debt collection agency must cease communicating with a debtor who notifies the agency in writing that he refuses to pay a debt or wishes the agency to cease further communication with him. If this occurs, there are only three types of communications the agency may still make. It may advise the debtor that it is discontinuing further efforts, notify him that it may invoke certain remedies, or notify him that it intends to invoke a specified remedy (Conn. Agencies Reg. 36a-809-3(d)(3), 15 U.S.C.A. 1692c(c)).

Harassment or Abuse

A debt collector may not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. State regulations and federal law specify that the following are examples of behavior that could constitute harassment or abuse:

1. using or threatening to use violence or other criminal means to harm the individual's physical person, reputation or property;

2. using obscene or profane language or language that has the natural consequence of abusing the hearer or reader;

3. causing a phone to ring or engaging anyone in phone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass; or

4. making phone calls without meaningfully disclosing the caller's identity, except for a call to obtain location information (Conn. Agencies Reg. 36a-809-3(e), 36a-647-5, 15 U.S.C.A. 1692d).

ENFORCEMENT

State

The law gives the commissioner certain specified enforcement powers including the ability to issue cease and desist orders, the right to take court action, and the right to hold a hearing and impose fines and penalties when certain state laws are violated. Individuals may file a written complaint with the Government Relations & Consumer Affairs division of the Department of Banking at 260 Constitution Plaza, Hartford, CT 06103-1800, or file one online at www.ct.gov/dob. The Consumer Credit Division can be reached at (860) 240-8299 or toll free at 1-800-831-7225.

Federal

The federal law is mainly administered by the Federal Trade Commission, which can use all of its general powers to enforce compliance. The law also gives certain enforcement powers to other agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve Board, and the National Credit Union Administration, to the extent the entities they regulate are involved in debt collection activities (15 U. S. C. A. 1692l).

To file a complaint with the FTC visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261.

Federal Civil Liability

The federal law specifically makes those who fail to comply with its requirements civilly liable to aggrieved individuals for an amount which is the total of:

1. actual damage resulting from the debt collector's noncompliance;

2. additional damage up to $1,000 for an individual or, for a class action, an amount equal to the individual damages for each plaintiff plus the amount the court allows for all other class members, without regard to a minimum individual recovery, up to the lesser of $500,000 or 1% of the debt collector's net worth; and

3. court costs and reasonable attorney's fees for a successful action.

The law lists the factors a court must consider, such as the frequency and persistence of the collector's noncompliance, its nature, and the extent to which it was intentional, the number of people adversely affected, and the collector's resources. But the collector is not liable if he can prove the violation was unintentional and resulted from a bona fide error. The law allows suits within one year from the date a violation of the federal debt collection law occurs in any appropriate district court against debt collectors regardless of the amount in controversy, or in any other competent court (15 U. S. C. A. 1692k).

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