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Guide to Elderly Debt Collection Laws

George Simons | December 01, 2022

Don't let debt collectors think they can take advantage of the elderly.

Summary: Debt collectors love to take advantage of the elderly. Find out how to keep debt collectors from harassing you and those you care about.

If you are being subjected to harassment by a debt collector, the stress and anxiety can be debilitating. You dread opening the mailbox out of concern that there will be a new threatening letter sent by the collection agency. You avoid phone calls, particularly calls from an unidentified number. You may have trouble sleeping due to concern about your long-term financial future.

Unfortunately, the concerns and stress associated with harassment from debt collectors are quite common and experienced by many people in all walks of life, even elderly individuals. The threats and harassment from a debt collector can be overwhelming for a senior citizen causing unnecessary stress and anxiety which, in some instances, can exacerbate existing health issues.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office for Older Americans, a frequent complaint from elderly individuals with unpaid debts is the frequent and abusive encounters with debt collectors. One out of every three complaints filed with the CFPB is related to an incident with a debt collector.

Complaints ranged from debt collectors threatening to garnish federal benefits to general harassment. This is extremely troubling, especially when you consider the fact that some elderly individuals have cognitive issues and are at a much greater risk of being taken advantage of by an unethical debt collector.

If you are a senior citizen being subjected to harassing phone calls and correspondence from a debt collector, do not give up hope. There are laws in place that are designed to protect you from such harassment.

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Examples of Disturbing and Unethical Debt Collection Tactics Used Against the Elderly

Anyone can be subjected to abusive debt collection practices. Nevertheless, elderly individuals are more vulnerable and, based on public data, frequently file more complaints with the CFPB than any other demographic related to encounters with debt collectors. Some of the types of abusive collection practices that have been reported by elderly individuals include the following:

  • Threats of garnishing retirement benefits - Debt collectors often threaten elderly individuals with the prospect of pursuing a garnishment of their retirement benefits as a way to convince the individual to pay the debt. Please understand that debt collectors are legally prohibited from garnishing Social Security income or benefits. Also, most retirement accounts are exempt from garnishment related to unpaid debt. Some debt collectors threaten that they will file a lawsuit to obtain a judgment to garnish income as an added punishment. Please note that such a tactic is illegal and would never be approved by a court.
  • Making baseless threats and using inappropriate language during the call - Debt collectors are often disrespectful and downright mean to senior citizens. They often assume that senior citizens do not understand their legal rights regarding fair debt collections. They also assume they can harass a senior citizen to the point where they will bend to their will, borrow money or go without medicine, food, or other necessities simply to pay off the debt. Also, as mentioned earlier, there have been disturbing incidents where a debt collector has attempted to take advantage of senior citizens with diagnosed cognitive issues such as Alzheimer's Disease.
  • Attempting to collect on a debt owed by a deceased individual - Unless the surviving spouse co-signed on the debt or agreed to be personally liable for the debt, a debt collector is unable to demand that the surviving spouse repay the debt. Unfortunately, many debt collectors try to prey on an individual's lack of knowledge in this regard and mislead the grieving spouse into making a payment under the belief that they are responsible for the debt.
  • Attempting to collect on time-barred debts - Creditors and debt collectors are only afforded a finite period of time to take legal action to recover on an unpaid debt. This period of time is known as the statute of limitations. When the statute of limitations expires, a debt collector is prohibited from filing a lawsuit to recover the debt. This means it has become a “time-barred” debt. Unfortunately, some debt collectors will press forward and try to collect on an old, time-barred debt hoping that you do not ask them for the actual age of the debt.

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Rights and Protections You Get From The FDCPA

If you are a senior citizen being subjected to harassing phone calls and letters from a debt collector, please understand that you do not have to endure such treatment. Debt collectors are required to obey the law regarding fair debt collection practices. At the federal level, Congress enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prevents debt collectors from taking certain actions when attempting to collect on a debt.

According to the FDCPA, debt collectors are generally not allowed to harass you, your loved ones, work colleagues, etc. in pursuit of repayment on a debt. For example, debt collectors are expressly prohibited under the FDCPA from engaging in the following types of collection practices:

  • Calling you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. without your permission
  • Threatening to harm you or members of your family physically
  • Threatening to harm you or members of your family financially
  • Using obscene or inappropriate language during phone calls or other correspondence
  • Calling you repeatedly
  • Calling you at work

If you send a cease and desist letter to the debt collector telling them to stop phone and written contact, there is a provision in the FDCPA that requires collectors who receive the cease and desist letter to immediately halt making phone calls and sending letters. Though, a cease and desist letter does not prohibit a debt collector from filing a lawsuit.

Senior citizens who are being harangued and threatened by debt collectors have rights and do not have to suffer through such abuse during their golden years. There are federal protections afforded to individuals when it comes to being contacted by debt collectors under the FDCPA. Also, many states have their own set of laws designed to protect individuals, including the elderly, from being abused and harassed by debt collectors.

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