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A Reporter Goes Undercover to Expose the Debt-Collection Industry

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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

America consists of two kinds of people--those who have heard from debt collectors and those who probably will hear from debt collectors.

In a nation of easy credit, most Americans are just a few late payments away from entering the murky netherworld of collection companies, outfits with names like NCO, Mann Bracken, LVNV, and Asset Acceptance. Never heard of those? If you have a credit card, you probably will someday.

When collection phone calls start coming--often accompanied by unlawful threats, misrepresentations, and other forms of deceit--most Americans have no idea what they are getting into. I know because I used to be one of those clueless Americans.

I had to educate myself about the sharks that swim in the churning, poorly regulated waters of the debt-collection business. But you won't have to do that if you make author Fred Williams your friend.

Williams, probably the foremost debt-collection journalist in the country, has written a book that is indispensable for consumers who want to be prepared when the collection calls start coming. It's called

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Fight Back Against Unfair Debt Collection Practices: Know Your Rights and Protect Yourself From Threats, Lies, and Intimidation (FT Press, 2011).

That's an unwieldy title, and it doesn't do Williams' book justice. The FT in FT Press stands for Financial Times, and the publisher is an imprint of Pearson Prentice Hall. The book apparently was marketed as a specialty book, in the personal finance genre.

Fight Back is about as close as you will find to a "one-stop shop" for information about dealing with debt collectors--and as such, it is a personal-finance book. But it's much more than that. Williams, a former reporter for The Buffalo News, went underground to work for three months at a debt-collection agency in 2008. That experience produced an articled titled "Confessions of a Debt Collector," at Kiplinger.

Fight Back is the book-length account of Williams' time as a debt collector. He now lives in Virginia and comes across as a true reporter, a guy who deals in solid information. He has a no-frills, behind-the-scenes style that conjures up a non-fiction version of John Grisham. You get the sense that this is a writer who has been there, who knows his subject intimately. Fight Back, at its best, reads like a Grisham novel--except that the bad guys are managers in a debt-collection agency, not partners in a law firm.

The law, however, plays a leading role in Fight Back. Specifically, it's a single law, called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). It's supposed to govern the actions of debt collectors and keep them from behaving in an abusive fashion. Williams shows, through 194 crisply written pages, that the FDCPA is pathetically weak and does almost nothing to protect consumers.

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That's why consumers have to be prepared to protect themselves. And Fight Back  is filled with practical suggestions for doing just that.

How badly is the FDCPA failing? Consider this from Williams:

Debt collectors caused more than 300,000 complaints to the Federal Trade Commission in the past five years, more than any other industry that the agency regulates. The rate of complaints is exploding, having more than tripled since 2003. The number-one complaint is that collectors are demanding money that people do not even owe, even grabbing it from their bank accounts. As the industry casts its net wider and wider--making an estimated one billion contacts with consumers per year--a growing number of people say they are being shaken down by telephone bullies.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)
 

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