This is not the debtor you're looking for.
January 14, 2013 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Multiple collection agencies have been calling my house for years asking for some dude we have never heard of. Telling Agency A this doesn't prevent Agencies B, C, D, and so on from calling anyway. The Attorney General told me we're SOL. What can I do?

It all started with a phone call from a hospital a few years ago looking for John Doe. I told them they had the wrong number and they said they would update their files. Within a couple of months, we started getting calls from various collection agencies looking for ol' Johnny. Some of them are belligerent about it, some friendly; some believe me when I say I've never heard of the guy, and some think I'm just trying to shelter him. But in any event, apparently the damned hospital sold the debt to approximately 382 collection agencies who are trying to drive me mad by calling every few weeks, one by one.

I contacted the Texas Attorney General who said that, since it's all different collection agencies, there's really nothing anyone can do about it.

But are they right? Am I doomed to this battle of paper cuts?
posted by Addlepated to Law & Government (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Change your number, and this is very unlikely to be your problem any more.
posted by deadmessenger at 12:05 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

Every few weeks? I wouldn't bother doing anything. As soon as someone asks for Debtor McNotaddlepated, just say, "He doesn't live here, he hasn't lived here at least since X, and I don't know who he is. Good-bye." Then take your phone off the hook for an hour. You are not under any obligation to have a telephone conversation with anyone.
posted by Etrigan at 12:09 PM on January 14, 2013

Agreed with deadmessenger. If this is driving you batty than your only real option is to change your number. I don't think calling the hospital and informing them that the number they provided the collections agencies is incorrect will do much good...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:12 PM on January 14, 2013

If you're not willing to change your number you can change it up a bit and pretend like you JUST got this number. Act like," huh, nope, never heard of him, just got this number last week." Eventually, someday, it will stop.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:22 PM on January 14, 2013

Between the debtors looking for people we don't know and the sales calls and the charity calls, we pretty much don't even answer the phone anymore unless we recognize the number calling. I know that's not always an option for people, but it is quite freeing, and we get fewer of these calls now I think. Like Etrigan says, you don't have to talk to someone just because they call you.
posted by cabingirl at 12:27 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

See if you can publicize and embarrass the hospital in question by contacting your local TV station's consumer protection program, if they have one.
posted by jgreco at 12:30 PM on January 14, 2013

Either screen your calls or change your number.

Eventually, someday, it will stop.

That's almost funny.
posted by edgeways at 12:33 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

We have one of these on our landline to block unwanted calls from ringing the phone. It works well now that the wrong number debt collectors, etc. are on the blacklist. If a new pest starts calling, it's easy to add their number.
posted by exogenous at 12:36 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

You should check the white pages for this guy's name AND number. If your number is under his name, you can create an account and report the error. It goes into effect immediately.

We had the same problem, and once we had the correct spelling of the debtor's name we checked and saw that our phone number was still under his listing. It was a long shot, but once we changed it, almost all of the calls ceased right away. I guess it makes sense that the first place a debt collector for a phone # would check is the white pages. We still get the occasional call, but not the 2 out of 3 phone calls a day we were getting.
posted by benk at 12:41 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

This used to happen to me on my cell phone. I would get calls looking for Esmeralda or some such name. I just told the callers that I was not her and not to call back. The calls became increasingly infrequent and have now stopped as far as I can tell.

I didn't call the Attorney General. I didn't call to get "9 On My Side". I just asked for the calls to stop, which were about as infrequent as your calls, and they did. As a creditor's rights lawyer, I am sure I could have pursued some statutory remedies, but I am not sure what the point would have been.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:49 PM on January 14, 2013

In 1991 when I moved to Florida, I moved in with the friends of a friend for about 2 weeks. Some how, I get skip tracers looking for them, what is it, 22 years later? Interesting thing about that, I've lived in 3 states, 8 different domiciles and have had about 9 different phone numbers in the intervening years.

My favorite thing is to get on the phone with them and dish, "OMG, Tony and Rene? It's been DECADES since I've seen them? What did they bilk YOU out of? They're still living in Hollywood, FL so far as I know. So is it a car? What kind? You know they have about 7 fraudulent SSN's." For some reason, once I get into that, the person on the other end just sighs and hangs up.

Seriously though, when you get someone asking for that name, just say, "Sorry, wrong number" and hang up. That's it. I'd give a bit more information: "You have a bad number, this is the Bunny residence. Only the Bunnys live here, we don't know any John Doe. Please remove us from the call list you have or this will be considered harrassment and I'll sue you."

Personally, I would look at this as an opportunity to make some money. Here are some instructions for How to Sue a Collection Agency.

There is a feature you can get put on your phone by they phone company called, Call Trace. You can call the Annoyance Call bureau and ask them to put it on your phone for a couple of months due to the harrassing calls you've been receiveing. After each call, just dial *57 and it will send a trace and log. You can then get this printed out on your bill for your records.

Now you have evidence and gan get PAID!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:00 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Changing your phone number is not a cure-all: there are the 'reverse directories' where you can use a street address to find the phone number --- no need to have a name, just the address.
posted by easily confused at 1:01 PM on January 14, 2013

There are a few magic words you can try, though as the AG told you, you really have little recourse. All the FDCPA stuff applies to the actual debtor. You're just some chump caught in the crossfire. So knowledgeable collectors may realize you have no teeth. Bunny's resource above won't do you any good.

In your shoes, if you're getting actual humans on the phone, I would say this:

"Stop harassing me. I cannot take your calls here. Put whatever you have to say in writing."

If they realize you're not this person or demand you identify yourself as him this may be no help. But the FDCPA has provisions against harassment (so DCs are sensitive to it) and you're entitled, as a debtor, to require that all communication be exclusively in written form. There's also some protection about bothering you at your place of business.

Even if this works it's only going to stop -that- DC and perhaps not even then - if these people are employed by the original creditor directly, rather than a DC, the rules are slightly different.

But what do you have to lose at this point?
posted by phearlez at 1:56 PM on January 14, 2013

My wife and I have had a similar problem for most of the 7+ years we've lived at our current place. Apparently our phone number used to belong to a relative of someone who skipped out on some debt. We'll go through periods of getting 2-3 calls per week from a debt collector. We screen our calls, but if we get a live person we explain (usually politely) that the person they are seeking does not live here, that we have had the number since 2005, and to please remove it from their list. Then the calls stop for anywhere from a few weeks to a year. When they start again, I presume it's because the previous agency sold the debt to someone else.

We just live with it, because it's less of a hassle to screen the calls than it would be to go after every collection agency that calls. I suggest cultivating ataraxia.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:08 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

My spouse has a common name so we used to get a lot of these when we moved and got a new number. I know it's tempting, but hanging up, being flippant or combative will not convince the collector that they have reached a dead end. Explaining the situation in an intelligent and professional manner will go further as collectors assume that the actual deadbeat is a jerk and you obviously are not. This worked for us.

brianogilvie, I agree with you and thank you for the new concept. Now I just have to get the vision of Frank Costanza shouting, "Ataraxia Now!" out of my head.
posted by Morrigan at 3:17 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The cell phone number I've had since 2007 used to belong to at least three people that apparently have unpaid debts. In the beginning I would receive calls once a day or more from people who wouldn't take, "I'm not Maurice. I don't know Maurice. This isn't Maurice's phone number anymore," for an answer. Eventually, I changed my outgoing phone message to the following and stopped taking calls from numbers I didn't recognize:
This is not Maurice. This is not Priscilla. This is not Kim. If you're a friend of one of these people, I'm sorry you have the wrong number. If you're a bill collector looking for one of them, STOP CALLING MY PHONE!
The calls are now down to one every couple of weeks. I am not making this up.

One other thing I did is when I find that the same number calls regularly, I add that number to a contact I recreated called "ZZZ Straight to Voicemail" that I have set to, obviously, send calls from numbers associated with that contact straight to voice mail.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:48 PM on January 14, 2013

We inherited a number like this and have gotten rid of many calls by blocking them using our handset. We bought a Panasonic cordless phone set that allows you to store "blocked numbers" and add numbers diligently. Our main problem now is that one or two parties call block their numbers so there's no way to add them to our block list. This is one of those annoying autodial callers that just hangs up when we answer so we have no way of knowing who it is.
posted by dottiechang at 1:02 AM on January 15, 2013

All the FDCPA stuff applies to the actual debtor.

IAAL who defends FDCPA cases, including a few class actions. This is an incorrect statement of law. The debtor is not the only person who has FDCPA remedies. In fact, some sections seem tailored to protect non-debtors in particular. Section 1692e comes to mind.

Someone suggested a lawsuit as a good way to make some money. In general, I don't recommend that people think of a civil suit that way because that is not really how it works. And, you are looking at a statutory damages cap of $1,000 for your recovery. That's the maximum - the court can award less. And, don't forget your court costs, which the lawyer will want you to pay even on a contingency case. The fact is that there's not a whole lot of appeal to a $1,000 debt collection case. These cases are fee-driven cases about getting the plaintiff's lawyer paid. And, just declaring "I considering this harassment!" doesn't make something harassment - it's a factual and legal question, although I have seen cases where call frequency such as what you describe was found to be not harassing as a matter of law. (and those are cases where the calls all come from the same collector, not different ones as in your case)

Like I said in my last comment, when this has happened to me, I have let it slide and told the caller that they have the wrong number. Maybe send a letter to the hospital as well so they can call off the dog. I know that "lawyer up!" is up there with "therapy!" as a AskMeFi favorite, but I simply don't think it is called for in this case.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:27 AM on January 15, 2013

This is an incorrect statement of law. The debtor is not the only person who has FDCPA remedies.

This isn't the place for debate on the issue, so I'll simply say that I am unaware of any non-debtor ever successfully launching a private action against a collector's violations and I'd be exceptionally interested to see a reference to such a case filed which wasn't dismissed, particularly if it was pro se (which, as you say, is about the only way to make such things economically sensible).

So whether there's anything in FDCPA that the courts have allowed to be used by a non-debtor or not, I'll assert that odds are effectively 0 that you're going to be able to use the threat of a violation against any of these folks to get them to stop calling you if they realize you're not the debtor.
posted by phearlez at 9:24 AM on January 15, 2013

I'd be exceptionally interested to see a reference to such a case filed which wasn't dismissed

“This bill [the FDCPA] also protects people who do not owe money at all. In the collector's zeal, collection efforts are often aimed at the wrong person either because of mistaken identity or mistaken facts. This bill will make collectors behave responsibly towards people with whom they deal.... Certainly a person who has a common name and is being hounded by a debt collector because of the debts of another person deserves the protection this legislation will offer. In far too many cases debt collectors do not even bother to double check common names before beginning collection efforts.” S.Rep. No. 95–382, at 4, reprinted in 1977 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 1699; see also H.R. Rep. 95–131, at 8 (1977).

Bodur v. Palisades Collection, LLC, 829 F. Supp. 2d 246, 251-52 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (granting summary judgment for plaintiff where defendant sent collection letter after it knew plaintiff was not debtor) (this case has a rather long string citing multiple cases on this issue)

Velazquez v. NCO Fin. Sys., 2011 WL 2135633 at *5 (E.D.Pa. May 31, 2011) (“[D]emanding payment from the wrong individual, even where the collector mistakenly sends one letter may give rise to a claim under the FDCPA as a matter of law.”)

Kuria v. Palisades Acquisition XVI, LLC, 752 F. Supp. 2d 1293 (N.D. Ga. 2010) (plaintiff, who had been wrongfully sued by collection agency attempting to collect a credit card debt that plaintiff did not owe, stated an FDCPA claim against collection agency by alleging agency's practice of abusive, scattershot litigation to collect debts).
posted by Tanizaki at 9:56 AM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

For the record, my "JF Teck" caller ID ring controller that I recommended above just stopped working. I've emailed the company to see if they have any solutions.
posted by exogenous at 4:20 PM on January 22, 2013

And customer support helped me get my problem sorted out fairly quickly.
posted by exogenous at 8:27 AM on January 23, 2013

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