points of power

Consumer Protection: 5 Points of Power for Seniors

Knowing your Points of Power is important for seniors.

Consider this:  “More Americans than ever before are now older than 65, and in just four more decades, there will be more seniors in the United States than people younger than 18 years old (for the first time in the history of our country)!”

This was the opening statement in an article that I recently reviewed, highlighting material submitted by the U. S. Census Bureau.  Our friends, parents, grandparents, community leaders, etc., have been there for us, taken care of us, provided for us, and paved the way for us to have a better future.  In many cases, the blessings of today have been established on the backs of individuals who have spent the last several decades laying the roads that we now travel.  Now, during these “latter years” of their lives, and at a time when those hard-working individuals should be relaxing in a joyful and peaceful retirement, some find themselves the targets of heartless and conniving creditor and collection agencies, looking to prey on anyone available.

On multiple occasions over the last 2 years, I have been contacted by retirement-age relatives and clients who were suspicious enough to contact an attorney prior to giving in to threats and unexpected allegations of debts owed.  These companies have claimed that there existed unpaid bills (cell phones, department/hardware stores, lines of credit, etc.), and that if they were not paid by a date certain, further legal and/or collection activity would take place.   In each case, we have been able to quickly stop these companies in their tracks, and turn them away.  It only makes me wonder, however, how many times these companies have been successful in settling these debts with unsuspecting seniors.  Such is the motivation of this article.

Below you will find 5 “Points of Power” that seniors can rely on when faced with such unexpected creditor claims:

1. You have the Power to Require Proof of Debt

You should always be certain of your responsibility for a debt, prior to paying that debt.  If a creditor cannot prove that the debt is yours, you should not pay it – even if you have previously had an account with the alleged creditor!  Furthermore, do not accept such proof over the phone.  Always request the creditor to provide a copy of your “file”, establishing that the debt is yours (be sure to provide a copy of the file to your attorney once you have received it).  If the creditor refuses to provide the file, and/or if the file does not clearly establish that the account is yours, do not pay the debt!

2. You have the Power to Refuse to Provide Personal Information

Always avoid giving personal information over the phone.  It may be ok to acknowledge your name, but it is never ok to verify your social security number, address, birthdate, or other personal information over the phone.  This is especially important when the caller or creditor is unfamiliar.  If the company and/or debt is legitimate, they will already have that information.  If they insist on obtaining that information before moving forward with the call, hold your ground – do not provide it.  Creditors always have the option to communicate with you through the mail.  In any case, do not provide any personal information via phone!

3. You have the Power to Require Written Communication Only

Consumer protection laws in the United States require creditors to communicate with you in writing only, upon your request.  Such companies also cannot communicate with you at your place of employment once requested by you.  Upon receiving a call from the creditor, notify them that you will no longer accept “live” communication from them via phone, but instead want written communications only.  You will then need to immediately provide the same request in writing (via fax and/or U.S. mail).  Ask the individual on the phone for a fax number and/or mailing address to which you can forward that request.  Once received, be sure to send the request in writing to the alleged creditor (I recommend sending via certified mail).  If the creditor violates your request (once it has been received in writing), they are in violation of consumer protection laws.

4. You have the Power to Negotiate

If you determine that the debt is legitimate (after following the recommendations above), you certainly have the right to negotiate an arrangement or amount that is manageable for you.  Although creditors will often be reluctant to negotiate a reasonable arrangement absent attorney involvement, you can attempt to negotiate the arrangement yourself.  Such arrangements can involve reducing the amount owed, and/or spreading the payment out over time.  Either way, you have no obligation to pay the debt in full at the time of the call.  Furthermore, if the debt is legitimate, it may be best to make the payment via check or money order as opposed to credit card over the phone (see # 2 above).

5. You have the Power to Contact an Attorney

You do not have to navigate your situation alone.  Creditors tend to “straighten up” when an attorney is involved on your behalf.  Oftentimes, creditors will be much more willing to negotiate with an attorney, than with a consumer.  False and deceptive creditors will often step back immediately when contacted by an attorney.  If you are unsure whether or not an alleged debt is legitimate, contact your attorney immediately.  It just may save you significant time and money, and may relieve you of unwanted stress.

Know your power and use it!