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Updated on Author: Contributor: Sergei Lemberg

Protecting the Elderly From Debt Collectors

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

You and your spouse had been looking forward to retirement for many years, pinching pennies and planning. These were supposed to be the golden years of your life, the cherry on top of your sundae, your well deserved reward for working hard to provide for the family you raised. Then inflation sent prices soaring, your spouse became sick and needed around the clock medical care, and your little retirement nest egg became a distant memory. Hospital bills are mounting, and you can’t pay them. You used to pride yourself on paying all your bills on time, now you live on a fixed income and can’t squeeze anything more from it. Now the debt collectors are calling, threatening to garnish your social security. If that happens, you won’t even have money to live on anymore. The dream you and your spouse once shared of retiring somewhere warm and living out your years in comfort, filled with sunshine and fun, taunts you like a childish fairytale. How did this happen? And is there anything you can do to change it?

Society has long recognized the elderly as  being especially vulnerable to debt collectors and fraudsters intent on taking their last dollar. Many live on fixed incomes and are unable to come up with extra money when catastrophe strikes. Being sick and disabled makes it harder to bounce back from setbacks, and even the most frugal can find themselves drowning in a sea of financial trouble, dreams of retirement homes vanishing in a sea of anxiety and fear they won’t have enough money leftover from their monthly checks to put food on the table or heat their homes. The financial security they worked hard all their life for gone in a flash.

According to the 2020 FBI report, 28% of total fraud losses were sustained by victims over 60, resulting in approximately 1 billion dollars in losses to seniors. That’s a lot of nest eggs. How can you prevent yourself from becoming just another statistic? By arming yourself with the knowledge necessary to protect yourself. First, know your enemy and the tactics they use.

AARP warns the public to be wary of debt collectors who engage in the following:

  • Threatening to Withhold Emergency Care in Hospitals. Debt collectors know that a sick, disabled individual is liable to view this threat as a possible death sentence. They aim to create enough fear in their victim that they will beg, borrow, and steal the money they owe to prevent this from happening. However, this is an empty threat. Hospitals must provide care. They can’t turn you away because you owe them money. 
  • Team Up with Banks to Offer Credit Cards to Debtors, Charging Them For A Previous Debt. When a debt is so old it is time barred and no longer collectible, making a payment can breathe new life into it, starting the clock ticking again. These debt collectors get a bank to offer you a credit card, knowing most people just sign on the dotted line without reading the fine print. Here, the fine print gives the credit card permission to charge a payment from the old debt to the credit card, and just like that, the old debt is alive again.
  • Creating Fake Social Media Accounts To Harass Debtors. You may think it’s cute and endearing that your ninety-five year old father approves every friend request he gets on Facebook, but it’s not cute when a debt collector announces your father is a deadbeat who doesn’t pay his debts on his wall for all friends and family to see. 
  • Pose As Law Enforcement Officers Threatening Arrest. There are no debtor’s prisons anymore. Getting behind on your bills is not a criminal offense. If a debt collector claims that you can be sent to prison for not paying the debt, or threatens to swear out a warranty for your arrest, they have stepped over the line and are in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). 
  • Threaten to Withhold Social Security and VA Benefits (Note: this is possible if it is a state or federal debt). Unless it is money owed to the state or federal government, this money is off limits.

How Can An Elderly Or Disabled Person Help Themselves?

  • Know How To Use The Internet. The simple, unadulterated truth is many of the members of Generation X and above did not have computers in school and have never used them. Many have and are proficient (myself included) proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks, but there is a significant percentage that has had very little internet exposure. If this includes you, grab a neighbor or a relative and ask them to show you. Once the mystique dissipates, you will realize it’s as simple as typing a few letters into a search engine. If you are a retired person, you may not see the purpose of learning this new skill, but having the ability to research debt collectors who call you will enable you to spot their scams and protect yourself from falling for one of their schemes. Many scammers count on the elderly not being internet savvy-prove them wrong!
  • Along with the above, DON’T accept Friend Requests on Social Media from people you do not know. Some of these “friends” want to get friendly all right-with your bank account! Permitting complete access to your private, personal profiles is almost always a mistake. Restrict your “friends” list to people you know in real life.
  • If a debt collector calls you, tell them not to call you again. They must honor your request. If they continue to harass you, they may be in violation of the FDCPA for which you can collect damages.
  • Record every interaction you have with a debt collector. If you still use a landline, buy a notebook and keep it near your phone. Write down the time they called, the date, who they said they were, what they said they were calling about, and their name and phone number. If you use a cellphone, wait a couple of days (so the date will appear instead of “today” and “yesterday”) and screenshot the number calling so you have a record of it. This can be used as evidence in the event you decide to pursue a harassment claim against them.
  • Do not give up credit card or bank account information to anyone over the phone. Ask them to send you a letter verifying the debt. Even if the debt is a small amount and you’re tempted to just pay it.
  • Do not admit that an old debt is yours, in some states the mere admission of having a time barred debt is enough to make it collectible again. 
  • Never pay for a debt you cannot confirm, do not remember, or is not yours.
  • Beware any debt collector who asks you to pay in gift cards. A legitimate collection agency would never request this. That’s a red flag that you’re dealing with a scam artist!
  • Also beware of “debt collectors” claiming to be collecting for the IRS or any other scary government agency

If you are being harassed, stand up for yourself. Don’t be tricked into thinking you deserve it for owing a debt. Contact a consumer protection law to help you. 

Remember, You DO NOT have to Pay:

  • Old, time barred debts past the statute of limitations
  • Debts you don’t remember
  • Debts that belonged to a deceased family member 
  • Debts that belong to living family members, even if you feel responsible for them or want to help them out. First your relative needs to do their due diligence and verify the legitimacy of the debt, then you can decide together whether you will help them out-don’t make deals with a debt collector on their behalf. 
  • Bail money for a family member or friend-such a request would come from them directly, not an anonymous unknown person over the phone. This is a common scam.
  • Do not allow a debt collector to abuse you, threaten you, and call you names. If a debt collector is harassing you, know your rights! Call an experienced consumer attorney.

A Consumer Protection Attorney May Be Able To Help You Claim Damages For The Following:

  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
  • Physical ailments caused or aggravated by the harassment and abuse 
  • Lost wages
  • Wage Garnishment Recovery

If a debt collector is relentlessly and harassing you, don’t just take it! Call an experienced consumer attorney!

About the author:

Contributor: Sergei Lemberg

Sergei Lemberg is a consumer rights attorney, practicing since 2006, whose practice focuses on consumer law, class actions and personal injury litigation. He is known for a United States Supreme Court case (Facebook v. Duguid) defending consumers from autodialers under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 to send unsolicited text messages. He is also the author of Defanging Debt Collectors, a book that teaches consumers how to battle debt collectors and win.

See more posts from Contributor: Sergei Lemberg
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