Pennsylvania is among the safest states to fall behind on credit card bills

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Know Your Rights explores your legal protections and rights in a broad range of everyday situations. If you have a topic you would like to see explored in Know Your Rights, contact Gabrielle Banks at

Not that you should. Not that you'd ever want to. But if someday you happen to fall behind on credit card payments, Pennsylvania is among the safest places in the country to do it.

It is one of four states -- the others being North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas -- where debt collectors cannot garnish your wages if you default, according to Clayton S. Morrow, a consumer protection attorney in Pittsburgh.

Elsewhere, collection agencies may seek a court order requesting that your employer siphon off 25 percent of your disposable income, after deductions for taxes and Social Security. That is, after your employer has siphoned off any alimony, family support, criminal restitution or student loans on which you're also delinquent.

But there are plenty of other means, within the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, for collection agencies to recover the money. However, some debt collectors -- intentionally or unwittingly -- cross the line.

"You have what I call 'rogue collectors' that operate outside the law, out of somebody's basement and their address is a P.O. box," Mr. Morrow said.

The Federal Trade Commission investigates debt collectors to identify and try to correct violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act; therefore, it behooves consumers to educate themselves about the law, said Jeffrey L. Suher, a Monroeville attorney who specializes in the debt collection act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Last spring, the FTC announced its largest settlement ever in a debt collection case. West Asset Management Inc. agreed to pay a $2.8 million civil penalty for, among other violations, misrepresenting itself as a law firm, threatening to arrest or imprison debtors, debiting consumers' bank accounts, imposing credit card charges without authorization and revealing consumers' debts to friends, employers or family members.

In its 2011 report to Congress, the FTC received more than 140,000 consumer complaints regarding unfair, deceptive and abusive debt collectors, 4 percent more than the previous year.

Not every complaint alleged illegal behavior. The commission also noted the number of complaints might not accurately reflect perceived violations since many consumers file complaints only with the debt collector or the creditor or they file with another enforcement agency. According to the report, a significant number of consumers "may not be aware that the conduct they have experienced violates the [Fair Debt Collection Practices Act]."

With that knowledge gap in mind, it's important to know what collection agencies -- which buy credit card debt in bulk or get a percentage on recovered credit card debt -- can and cannot do.

Debt collectors may:

• Mail you notices, usually with a 30-day warning that collection calls may commence.

• Call you a few times per day between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

• Call a friend, relative or neighbor to confirm your location.

• Threaten to sue you during the first four years of your debt.

• Sue you and, if they get a judgment in their favor, freeze your bank account.

• Continue to call you as long as you remain in debt.

Deb collectors may not:

• Harass you with repeated or continuous calls.

• Use obscene, profane or abusive language.

• Call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

• Leave you a message regarding your debt.

• Threaten to show up at your work.

• Call your work if you've informed them your employer prohibits such calls.

• Threaten to garnish wages if you work in Pennsylvania.

• Disclose your debt to your employer, coworkers, neighbors, friends or family members.

• Call after you've notified them you have retained a lawyer.

• Misrepresent the amount, status or character of your debt.

• Demand a larger payment than is permitted by law; for example, by requesting interest, fees or expenses you do not owe.

• Fail to identify themselves as a debt collection agency.

• Threaten violence or damage to your property.

• Threaten to have you arrested. Failing to pay a debt is a civil matter.

• Threaten any behavior it does not intend to pursue, such as a civil suit, seizure of property, criminal prosecution, getting the debtor dismissed from a job, ruin a person's credit rating.

• Threaten to sue past the four-year limit, although no limit exists on how long they can try to recover the money.

• Threaten to sue you if you make your first payment as a result of collection calls made after the four-year statute of limitations expires, effectively deceiving you, unlawfully, into restarting the four-year clock for a lawsuit.

Consumers have a right to:

• Request a statement of the debt in writing. The collection agency must provide it before moving forward with any further requests.

• Be informed if the debt collector has passed its four-year window to sue you.

• Submit a "cease communication" request in writing, stating you don't want to receive further notice or you don't intend to pay. The debt collector must cease collection attemptsbut may still sue you within the four-year statute of limitations.

• Sue the debt collector if they violate the laws stated above.

Mr. Morrow suggested that individuals who receive collection calls make note of any statements that seem "disrespectful, undignified, unfair, or untrue" and jot down the date, time and name of the representative.

Mr. Suher offered these tips:

• First, find out who owns your debt. If you're dealing with a debt buyer, he said, they often don't have the documents they need to know how much the consumer owes and inflate the amount.

• Do not ignore a lawsuit. If you receive a notice to appear in court, show up.

• Once a year, request a free credit report at Debt can legally remain on a credit report for 7 1/2 years after default. Whether you make your payment or not, the debt must come off the credit report.

Gabrielle Banks: . First Published February 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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