West Virginia residents may be shocked to learn that American citizens sometimes find themselves behind bars over unpaid mortgage, auto loan or credit card bills. While imprisonment for not paying civil debts was banned in the United States in 1833, judges in 44 states can still issue bench warrants for contempt in debt-related cases when individuals disobey court orders or fail to appear for post-judgment proceedings. When the American Civil Liberties Union looked into debt-related imprisonment, it discovered that people had been sent to jail over amounts as small as $28.
Rules protecting consumers are often skirted or ignored
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act sets strict limits on what collection agencies can and cannot do in pursuit of unpaid debts, but the rules are often ignored by companies that make nothing if they do not recover at least some of the money owed. The 1977 law prohibits debt collectors from threatening criminal action or jail over unpaid debts, but this type of coercion is worryingly common according to the ACLU. In 200 counties, prosecutors even allow debt collectors to send demand notices printed on their official letterhead.
Taking steps to end the harassment
The provisions of the FDCPA require debt collectors to stop contacting consumers when asked to so in writing. They must also provide proof that the debt in question is legitimate when challenged. If letters demanding an end to daily harassment are ignored, consumers can file complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission or their state’s attorney general’s office. Americans can be prosecuted for failing to pay taxes or child support payments, but collection agencies do not generally handle these debts.
Responding to threats with a legal action of your own
If you are being hounded daily by debt collectors and would like to put an end to it, you may wish to consider consulting an attorney with experience in this area. Attorneys could review the actions taken by debt collectors to see if they violate the provisions of the FDCPA, and they may initiate civil proceedings on your behalf when they do. Attorneys could also explain the advantages and disadvantages of strategies like debt consolidation.