Author: Amy Davis, Investigative Reporter/Consumer Expert,
Cody Schultz, News Producer

HOUSTON – Harassing debt collectors are one of the top complaints for federal investigators.

In many of the cases, the person on the other end of the line didn’t even owe money. Some collectors hope the consumer can’t remember, and scare them into sending them a payment. In 2013, the federal trade commission received more than 204,000 calls about debt collectors, like this one.

“My name is Clair Johnson,” the call begins. “I’ve been retained to serve you with a summons to appear in court for two charges that are being filed against you. I’m required to state your rights. Prior to speaking with your HR Director or supervisor, to get the proper protocol for serving you on the property of your employer since we have been unsuccessful serving you at your residence.”

According to Houston consumer attorney Dana Karni, there are a number of violations in the call.

“There is no subpoena,” Karni explained. “There is no affidavit. There’s no record. None of these buzzwords that are used that sound like lofty legal terms are actually implemented by the District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the local police.”

Failure to pay a debt is not a crime; a debtor can’t be charged or arrested. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors can contact people like an employer to try and find the debtor, but they can’t go into detail about the money.

“If a collection agency’s calling and talking to your employer, supervisor, colleagues, and friends and mentioning that you owe a debt, they have violated your rights,” Karni said.

The collector from the call above threatened to take action if the debtor didn’t call them back.

“Failure to do so will result in forfeiting your rights and your employer will be issued a wage garnishment order,” Karni said.

In Texas, employers can only garnish wages for back taxes, child support and student loan debt.

“If this scare tactic didn’t work, debt collectors wouldn’t use it,” she said.

For anyone who receives a threatening phone call, Karni suggests contacting the company and asking them to send the information about the owed debt in writing. By law, they have to do that. Consumers shouldn’t offer any new information until they know who they’re dealing with.