Consumers around the country have taped threatening phone calls from collectors who have called in the middle of the night, used abusive language and have threatened to have people fired from work or thrown in jail. All of these tactics are illegal under federal law.Listen to another audio recording of one phone call from a debt collector, and read its transcript.
Former debt collector Mike Flannagan, however, told ABC News, "Mean works better than nice," and many collectors prey on consumers' ignorance of the law.
According to Flannagan, "If I call you every day, and I bust your chops every day, and I progressively threaten you, and I progressively get meaner...the more likely you're going to pay me." Flannagan says he eventually quit the industry in disgust with himself.
To learn more on how to protect yourself against an abusive debt collector, watch the Brian Ross 20/20 report on ABC News.
Rozanne Andersen of ACA International, the trade group for the collection industry, says the vast majority of debt collectors follow the law and that the image of the bullying, abusive collector is an old stereotype. According to Anderson, "A debt collector is not the enemy of the consumer. His or her job is to help find a solution and help the person figure out a way to pay the debt."
A report on the debt collection industry issued by the Federal Trade Commission, however, found that consumers filed a record number of complaints against collectors in 2005, up 14 percent from the previous year. According to the FTC, the 66,627 debt collection complaints were more than were received against any other industry and yet "represents a relatively small percentage of the total number of consumers who actually encounter problems with debt collectors."
By far, the most common complaint to the FTC was from people who say they were pursued for payment over charges they did not owe.
In the case of Loida Ripdos of Minneapolis, Minn., even after she filed a police report about a case of identity theft, debt collectors continued to hound her to pay a $1,200 credit card bill for an account someone had opened in her name. While six companies stopped their collection efforts, one firm called Apex Financial made a collection call that Ripdos felt contained an implied threat to her life.
According to Ripdos, "I was crying when the phones ended. I was, you know, scared, because I was alone at the time."
Apex Financial said the collector was fired for other reasons, and that the actions by one Apex collector caught on tape "should not cast a shadow upon the hard work and ethical conduct" of other Apex debt collectors.