Like the U.S. government that has a bad habit of spending way more than it makes, resulting in a national debt that is now a mind-boggling $18+ trillion, too many Americans are also mired in debt.
Note: Some say it is now mathematically impossible for the U.S. government to pay off the national debt because the government now owes more dollars than actually exist. (Source)
Herb Weisbaum reports for NBC News that 35% of Americans have debt in collections. For 18% of Americans, not only do they have debt in collections, repayment of their debt is so unlikely, they expect to die owing money.
Among the Americans whose debt is in collections are millions of senior citizens — retirees in their “golden years” who, faced with a fixed income and constantly rising cost of living, are being hounded by increasingly aggressive debt collection agencies.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently reported that for older Americans, debt collection is the top complaint. About one out of three complaints submitted to the agency by seniors is about debt collection. The major complaints include:
- Being hounded for medical debts (42 million Americans have medical debt)
- Attempts to collect the debts of deceased family members from their relatives
- Callers using foul language, and
- Illegal threats to garnish Social Security and other federal benefits.
Some of the seniors who complained about debt collectors expressed concern that “the distress of being harassed by a debt collector aggravates existing medical conditions and thereby endangers their health.” Some seniors pay off debts just to stop the calls, even though they don’t believe they truly owe the money.
Michael, a 77 year-old retiree who lives in the Seattle area realized he could not pay his credit card bills after he stopped working. So he contacted the two card companies and made payment arrangements that he could handle. That worked for a while, but eventually, they turned it over to collection. The calls started immediately. Michael said, “Initially, they were not that aggressive, but over time when I made it clear that I had to abide by the initial payment arrangements that I had made, they would not accept that. And then they started to threaten garnishment of my fixed income. I knew that if that happened that I was going to be in a place of real jeopardy.”
Michael was getting as many as four calls a day. He says the collectors told him they were prepared to garnish his Social Security payments. A few threatened him with arrest. He was afraid to answer his phone. “And these calls would come early in the morning and late at night, and it was always from the point of view of we’re going to get you, no matter what you do. When you hear that again and again, it becomes a pretty unsettling experience to say the least. The sense of belligerence which they exercise pretty effectively can be very, very scary.”
Eventually, the pressure, stress and anxiety began to impact his day-to-day-life, so Michael contacted a lawyer and decided his only option was to file for bankruptcy protection.
Lisa Stifler of the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), a non-profit advocacy group, says “American consumers are profoundly and negatively affected by wrongful debt collection tactics on a daily basis. No one should be forced to deal with illegal collection activity, and debt collectors should not be allowed to exploit vulnerable seniors in order to make a profit.”
If you are a senior citizen being harassed by debt collectors, here’s what you need to know:
1. If you don’t own a home, you are “judgment proof.”
2. Your income from Social Security or government pension is exempt from collection because most federal benefits are protected in debt collection. Contrary to some debt collectors’ threat, they can’t garnish your Social Security benefits. If you receive federal benefits by direct deposit to a checking account, the bank or credit union is required automatically to protect up to two months’ worth of these benefits. Benefits received on a government-issued prepaid card are usually protected, too.
3. Dispute inaccurate debts.
4. The CFPB advisory has sample letters that can be used to find out information about the claims being made, dispute the debt, and request that a debt collector stops collection communications like harassing phone calls.
5. If you are having a problem with a debt collector, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.