One of the reasons I decided to study law was the incessant harassment by debt collection agencies for debts I did not have or debts that were at best dubious failings by companies to do their job properly. Most “debts” were companies who had cocked up with cancellation procedures that had in the long run cost me money. I was left out of pocket and having to battle the Debt Collection Agency minefield. The rest of the DCAs to darken my doorstep were looking for a previous owner of my flat who didn’t leave any forwarding address and the door knockers and call centre staff would not believe I was not the person in question.
Out of the two, the latter were more frightening and there were times, steel toe capped boots were placed in my door to stop me closing it on the debt collectors. They wanted proof of who I was, in my home, and were threatening in how they went about it. Being pigheaded, I refused to show them my passport or driving license as I had no debt and was an entirely different person to the one they were after. In the end it was the police who dealt appropriately with the situation. It didn’t stop the phone calls, which continued 8 years for the previous owner.
These companies are vultures who rely on the fear of those in debt to do business. They present the debts in legal looking letters, often in a manner that suggests you are a step away from the high court. Letters appear to come from solicitors, although those you will deal with are merely administrators and not legal professionals. They deliberately plan letter delivery over long weekends and bank holidays, while giving you only seven days from the date of the letter to respond before they threaten court action. All this, regardless of its dubious legal position is designed to intimidate. It is important to remember with this 7 day deadline that for you it is date of receipt of the letter and not date of the letter being sent. A DCA will have to prove you received the letter from them, unless it is signed for recorded or special delivery this is near impossible for them to do. It is always advisable to remind them of this should they ramp up contact 7 days after the letter was printed.
The doorstep collectors above took it to a whole new level.
Of course debt collectors are generally exempt from harassment legislation, and they will rely on this fact when you complain about the five or more phone calls a day, the same number of voicemails and daily bombardment with threatening red letters. They don’t care or even want to know the story of how the alleged debt came to be or indeed that the original creditor (company providing the service) may have been entirely wrong in claiming it was a debt. The creditor/original company have sold on the debt usually to an independent company and from that point on its up to you to prove that it’s them and not you in the wrong.
The “debtor” has very little safeguard if a company decides you owe them money. Without trawling very dry and hard to access legislation and guidelines, it’s difficult to know how to fight these people. If the debt is a real debt, it’s a minefield trying to work out what you really owe and what the DCA has added on for it’s own fees. It’s an unfair practice designed to baffle and confuse ordinary people struggling with finances, especially in times of difficulty, as now. DCAs are profit making companies and have no interest in making things easier for you.
I have been lucky that I have never legitimately been chased by a DCA. It has always been a fault with the original creditor and I have always managed to have the alleged debts cancelled, even if the money the companies had wrongfully taken from me was never returned to me. Of course, DCAs aren’t quite as willing to chase these large corporations for debts on behalf of the little people and after years of trying to get back what is owed, most ordinary people will give up unsuccessfully.
My latest fight with a debt collection agency was ironically around universities fees from my first attempt at studying law. I was at a “new” university undertaking an accelerated LLB degree, which commanded fees of £6000 per year. For a variety of reasons of the universities doing, I was forced to leave. I had been clear about the learning supports, adjustments and information I needed to undertake the course and despite initial reassurances and a statutory duty, when it came time, the university were unwilling to provide me with any of it. I was a cashcow for them and they would say anything to get me through the door, once in it was a different story.
The final straw came when they refused advanced access (pre Christmas holidays) to the next terms timetable, despite knowing well in advance the problems of arranging adequate childcare for babies and my need for this information as soon as possible. It may not seem like much but with waiting lists in excess of 6 months and my daughter not having moved any on multiple lists, not being able to provide specific days and times to nursery meant that none of them could offer us a place. Timetables for term 2 were not released until two days before the start of term, on a Saturday. There is no way I could have sorted out childcare in that time. I had no option but to leave to look after my child.
I heard no more from the university about the fees due and given my letter explaining my reasons, highlighting their statutory failures, naively assumed that was the end of the matter. I was wrong (and yes I know stupid) to believe it was over.
In April 2012, 16 months after leaving university, I received a letter out of the blue from a debt collection agency called Incasso. They wanted almost £3000 but did not say what the debt was for, merely that it was in relation to said new university. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the university had sold the debt on, without so much as approaching me about paying it first. The letter was aggressive, delivered on a bank holiday weekend and gave me 7 days from the date of the letter to respond with a payment plan or face court action. The first working day back they started calling my partners mobile phone and being rude to both him and me. The lady on the phone felt compelled to say, “I know it’s you because your husband handed the phone to you” when I pointed out I had no husband she replied, “don’t lie to me”. So apparently now I married but noone thought to tell me. Her attitude was appalling and she was on the offensive from the start.
I refused to communicate in any medium other than written posted letter. This ensured I had a paper trail. All responses were sent recorded or special delivery, so I had proof of receipt, all at my own expense. I disputed the debt, quoting legislation and regulatory guidelines they are obliged to follow and requested they returned the debt to the university to allow us to negotiate the situation. They would only communicate via email except for threatening letters. Their communication consisted of “please call us immediately”.
Incasso did not respond to any of my letters and kept sending more threatening letters, each time increasing the debt by considerable sums. Of course I didn’t leave it at that. I contacted the university to request they stop Incasso from chasing the debt until we had discussed and investigated the matter.
I had a huge degree of success from the university. I presume they realised they were in a difficult legal position regarding their treatment of me and their unwillingness to make reasonable adjustments. As a gesture of “goodwill” they erased the debt completely. Far cheaper than have me take them to court under the Equality Act and all the negative publicity that would bring them.
Noone thought to tell Incasso. I have received more threatening letters since the university informed me of their decision to wipe the debt. The debt amount has risen.
I am no longer going to communicate with Incasso. They failed to respond to any of my letters, they failed in performing their duties under the regulations that govern their industry, they are chasing a non-existent debt and long may they continue to do so. I look forward to the letter informing me they are taking me to court and only then shall I provide all the evidence necessary, that I have undertaken all the duties required of me in trying to sort this problem out. This shall cost them money and I don’t care.
Morally I should do the right thing but I am under no legal obligation to do so and given the perpetual harassment of innocent people by the likes of Incasso, I shall let them do what they do best.
When I hear of debt collectors harassing people I get so angry. They rely on people not understanding their rights or the law and they play on people’s fear of the law. They are c**ts.
I cannot recommend enough the likes of The Consumer Forums in help navigating the debt collection minefield. They provide fantastic template letters and support when you are at your most panicky and worrying. If you have problems with debt collection agencies chasing for non-existent debts, I suggest you get help from the forums. Even if the debt does exist, I would still recommend getting advice there and speaking with the Citizens Advice Bureau on your rights.