At Merchants Credit Bureau in Augusta, no employees are on the clock between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. or on Sundays. Federal regulations restrict debt collectors from calling debtors during those hours, and the company's policy acts as extra protection against an increasingly litigious culture.
"If someone were to sue us for calling during those times, we could say, 'Hey, we didn't even have anyone on the clock,"' Merchants President Leon Gentry said.
It's just one of many ways the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act influences debt collection agencies in an industry in which new collection accounts nearly doubled between 1998 and 2001, according to ACA International, an industry tracker.
Passed in 1977 and amended several times, the act applies to all collection agencies, repossession companies, lawyers and anyone else trying to collect a debt for a third party.
The original creditor, however, is not bound by the act. That means the company that extended you credit can call or visit you at any hour.
Restrictions for third-party collectors include:
Any collection agency that doesn't follow these rules can be sued, but the process is rarely worth it, said Steve Rhode, the president and co-founder of MyVesta, a nonprofit financial help group based in Maryland.
"The penalties are really nothing," he said. "You can recover attorneys' fees and a little bit of money; you won't make a killing, though."
If a collection agency is harassing you, it's best first to tell them you know your rights under the act and hope that will scare them into shape, Mr. Rhode said.
It also helps to understand the collector's point of view. With time and income quotas, the system is not set up to allow for leisurely collections, he said. Screaming or cursing at the collector never helps - they are just a third party doing a job.
"A lot of times it may feel like the collector is harassing you, but really it's the pain and anguish of facing the fact that you have financial problems," Mr. Rhode said.
A cease and desist order will stop collectors from calling, but it also means the only way to collect the debt is to sue - and they often will.
"That only ratchets up the pressure," Mr. Rhode said.
"A lot of times it may feel like the collector is harassing you, but really it's the pain and anguish of facing the fact that you have financial problems." - Steve Rhode, the president and co-founder of nonprofit financial help group Myvesta
Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.