Some things can’t be avoided and it seems debt is one of them. But even the people trying to get the money you owe have to play by the rules. We spoke to one woman who told us her journey. State officials say debt collectors are also closely watched.
Denise, who gave us only her first name because she’s embarrassed, is a college graduate in her 50s who says her debt is out of control, nearing $70,000.
“My debt is student loans, a car that was repossessed and an unemployment overpayment," she said.
She’s been out of work and dealing with nasty debt collectors, she says,
“They call and they will ask you not to buy something—like, for instance, don’t buy pizza for your children or don’t get your hair done or nails done so they kind of can be obnoxious on the phone,” she said.
And not being able to pay them is even worse.
“People seem to stigmatize you, like 'You owe somebody?'" she said. "Especially the when the collectors call, they act like you owe them money so they can be really rude and intimidating.”
It’s embarrassing but common. According to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts, 80 percent of Americans are in debt, with the median debt load at about $67,000. That includes things like mortgages, student loans and credit cards.
State Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations Undersecretary John Chapman says you shouldn’t be harassed because you have bills.
“Everyone owes something," he said. "Its nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Chapman’s agency oversees the division of banks, which is responsible for the 400 licensed debt collectors in the state. Chapman says they are keeping a close eye on them, but it’s such a sensitive subject that most people won’t complain.
“What we are finding is there are unscrupulous debt collectors, and people don’t say anything because of the shame of being in debt,” he said.
Debt collectors have to follow rules, Chapman says.
“They can only call between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.," he said. "They cannot discuss your debt with anyone and they cannot be verbally abusive."
If a collector doesn’t play by the rules, it can lose its license. It’s something the state takes seriously—late last year Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against a Waltham firm for attempting to collect debts they couldn’t prove. Chapman couldn’t comment on that because it’s in litigation but says consumers have rights.
“You can ask a debt collector to show you the original debt in writing," Chapman said. "They must stop all calls until they prove the debt is yours.”
Denise didn’t know that was a right she had. Now she says she will complain when things don’t feel right. She hopes something will come out of a recent job interview, and she’s reached out to a debt solution agency. She wants to make payment arrangements and clear her bills.
The truth is most people are like Denise and want to pay what they owe, they just need a little help.