Q&A: What Can Debt Collectors NOT Do?
By: Brian O'Connell

Question: I read your article about the guy in Dallas who fought back against debt collectors and sued them successfully. What are my rights when dealing with collection agents and how can I tell when they’re crossing the line?— R. Keane, Wilmington, N.C.

Answer: No question that Craig Cunningham, the gentleman you referenced, is getting a lot of media attention for taking on overly aggressive debt collectors and winning. (Here's the full story on how he accomplished that).

But Cunningham might be the first to admit that the state he resides in — Texas — has tougher laws on what debt collection agents can and cannot say when dealing with the public.

So, your first job is to contact your state attorney general’s office and find out the local rules on debt collection practices. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Web site, the Attorney General contact for you in North Carolina is George E. B. Holding (919) 856-4530.

For a complete list of attorneys general in all 50 states, visit the Justice Department Web site.

There are also some steps you can take on your own to learn how to fight back against aggressive debt collectors. Cunningham went to school on consumer debt Web sites like DebtorBoards.com and FatWallet.com (where Cunningham dispensed debt collection advice on the site’s debt forum, under the moniker CodeName47).

The Federal Trade Commission also has a good Web site for tips and strategies for dealing with debt collectors.

To keep debt collection agents off your back, send a cease and desist letter to any debt collector who calls your home, demanding that they stop calling. Most states have laws that stop collection agents from calling you on the phone if you ask them.

Also, never give a collection agent personal contact information (i.e., where you work, what bank you use, or what clubs or associations you belong to).

When a collection agent does call, use a tape recorder. You’ll have to check your state's rules first on the taping of phone calls, but 35 states do allow you to secretly tape phone calls without the other party’s permission. The other 15 states allow you to keep taping as along as you tell the collections agent you’re doing so.

Cunningham’s tapes with collection agents proved invaluable in court. When an overly aggressive agent threatened to garnish his wages on one call (a big debt collection no-no), Cunningham was able to use the tape as evidence, and he wound up winning that case.

Fighting back against unethical debt collectors isn’t as hard as you might think. Just do your homework, know your rights and hold debt collectors responsible for their actions. Those three steps alone will level the playing field, and put you back in control over a tough debt situation.

No doubt, credit and debt are big issues for Americans these days. If you have a question on banking, mortgage, credit card, college loans, auto loans or insurance, BankingMyWay.com can help. Just e-mail us at qanda@thestreet.com.

—For more ways to save, spend, invest and borrow, visit MainStreet.com.

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