Oliver: Debt collection statistic gives cause for pause

This statistic in the Business section last week caused a double-take: More than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies.

That’s according to a study released by the Urban Institute and reported by The Associated Press.

More than one in three.

The average of that debt? $5,178. So we’re not talking about a random bill that slipped through the cracks.

The closest I ever came to a collection agency was for something just like that. I had bought a mattress at the old Montgomery Ward store in Crystal Lake and then moved.

The bill got lost in the transition, and it wasn’t until months later that I started getting calls. Of course, a quick visit to the store cleared it all up.

Things happen.

If you’re like me, though, you probably assume that most of that was from people who racked up hefty credit-card bills. We’d be wrong.

According to Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, 10.1 percent of the debts collected were from credit cards, the AP reported. Health care-related debts led the way with 37.9 percent.

As a whole, the country’s credit-card debt has been decreasing in size steadily since mid-2009.

So what should you do if you find that one of your bills has gone into collection?

Know that you have rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That means that under federal law, debt collectors are required to deal with you fairly.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, a debt collector may not:

• Call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.;

• Contact you at work if the collector knows that your employer does not allow it;

• Harass or abuse you or anyone they contact;

• Lie or mislead anyone when collecting a debt.

More information about debt collection can be found on the FTC’s website at

What constitutes abuse by a debt collector?

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, examples of harassment include:

• Repetitious phone calls meant to annoy, abuse or harass you or anyone answering the phone;

• Obscene or profane language;

• Threats of violence or harm;

• Publishing lists of people who refuse to pay their bills (although this does not include reporting information to a credit reporting agency);

• Calling without telling you who they are.

If you think that you are being harassed, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is a branch of the U.S. government, online at or by calling 855-411-2372. Or you can file a report with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

Maybe this doesn’t apply to you.

But chances are pretty good we all know someone to whom it does.

More than one in three Americans. That’s quite a statistic.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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