Thursday, December 31, 2009

Got debt?

I received a strange phone call yesterday. I'm home this week on annual leave.

Ms. Chisum called, and using my first name, asked how I was doing. Since I don't know any Ms. Chisum, I was immediately suspicious.

She wanted to know if had a neighbor by the name of, let's say, Juan Gonzalez. I asked why.

Instead of answering my question, she drew out the conversation. She correctly said that I lived on [street name and number], and continued, "And Mr. Gonzalez lives at, I want to say... I want to say... [street name and number], right?" That is the correct address for the house next door.

I said, "You must be a bill collector."

She said,"No." I'm pretty sure she was lying at this point, but perhaps she was denying that she "must" be a bill collector.

I said I didn't know the name of who lived next door. She asked if I would go post a note on their door.

At that house, there has been a succession of yearly tenants, usually several unrelated adults with children sometimes present. There have been a few police visits to the house over the years, with at least one being in response to an alleged shooting there.

Last year I had my garage spray painted with a gang sign, the numeric designation of an urban semi-automatic gun. I have my suspicions who did it since there was a large party going on next door on that weekend day when I drove away at noon, and the party was over and the obscene symbol was on my garage wall a few hours later when I returned.

I asked Ms. Chisum what the note would say. You like to be helpful. Perhaps the occupant's wife was in labor in Bolivia or something and he needed to call home.

Ms. Chisum said, "It would just contain my name and number, with a note asking Mr. Gonzalez to call."

I asked her if she was a bill collector. There was a long silence and then Ms. Chisum said, "I already said no to your earlier question."

I declined to undertake the requested action and the call terminated.

In my profession, I deal with the Fair Debt Collections Practice Act ("FDCPA"), a statute written by Congress which prohibits debt collectors from engaging in a laundry list of abusive practices like smearing an individual's name by calling up his or her neighbors (or employers--sometimes repeatedly) and alerting them to the supposed presence of a deadbeat in their midst. I referred to the wording of the statute and found that Ms. Chisum either did, or did not, violate the statute if she was a debt collector, which I'm pretty sure she was.

She was entitled to call me up if she was genuinely trying to locate the actual address of the deadbeat. She cannot state to an unrelated party that the purpose of the call involves an attempt to collect a debt. She has to give her name. So far Ms. Chisum complied.

If directly asked, she has to disclose the name of her employer. I asked how she was employed, not who her employer was. It would do me little good if she said to me, "I work for the ABC Company."

I consulted with a fellow lawyer who said that theoretically my question whether she was a debt collector triggered Ms. Chisum's duty under that part of the statute to truthfully respond, putting her in violation of the FDCPA. I'm not sure I agree with that, but this attorney agreed with me that neither of us would go to court to try to cite this set of facts as being clearly violative of the FDCPA.

This attorney also said that Ms. Chisum was very professional and acted correctly by not disclosing to me that Mr. Gonzalez was a deadbeat. Which would have been apparent if she had confirmed that she was a debt collector.

See how vague this statute, like many statutes, is? Ms. Chisum was lying to me, but fulfilling the spirit of the law. Where does that leave me, the innocent recipient of this legally allowable call?

I know this much. If I was naive and eager to help without first ascertaining all the facts (the "wife giving birth in Bolivia" scenario), I could go post the requested note next door and step right into the middle of an acrimonious financial dispute. This would be a great thing to unleash in a neighborhood.

Imagine this scenario. I post the supposedly innocuous note on my neighbor's door. Mr. Gonzalez comes home at midnight, having put in a hard day's work followed by a full evening of relaxation at a tavern. He's handed a note which he sees as a demand by a debt collection company to call them, which has been taped onto his door by his next-door neighbor.

I'd sure like to hear pounding on my door at midnight, forcing me to arise from bed so I could go discuss on my porch the note I'd posted hours earlier on my enraged neighbor's door in an attempt to be helpful.

Did I already say it's a vague (in parts) statute?

1 comment:

Anne said...

This post makes me grateful I gave up my landline. Happy New Year, Peter.