As an attorney, I hear from many clients who tell me that they receive phone calls demanding payment for bills that they have either already paid or for debts that they never incurred. The bill collectors focus particularly on the elderly and on immigrants not familiar with the American court system. Often these fraudulent callers demand payments of between $250 and $500 “or we will have the police take you to jail tomorrow.” They scammers hope that these victims will pay the amount out of fear, embarrassment and isolation.
First of all, please understand that, in America, THERE IS NO DEBTOR’S PRISON!! There are three exceptions. It is true, that you can go to jail for not paying child support. And, if there is a judgment against you, and you do not answer the Court’s request for information after judgment, you are violating a court order and be found in contempt. Finally, if you write a check and it bounces, that is a criminal offense for which you can be given a criminal jail sentence. But, in a normal debt collection case, the bill collector cannot file suit one day and put anyone in jail.
If you receive a call saying that “You pay today, or you go to jail tomorrow”, ask for a number and name to call back and hang up the phone. Chances are that the phone number will not work when you call them back. If they call back, tell them that you will call your lawyer. That should stop the calls. If they still keep calling, then you need to call a lawyer who is familiar with Unfair Debt Collection Practices. There are a few attorneys in Baltimore who handle these cases, including me.
Many of us attorneys who represent immigrants are concerned that the next trick these scammers will try is to say that, if you do not pay immediately, they will call immigration authorities and have you deported. Or they will say that they are actually working with the ICE. The truth is that the employees in INS are too busy to deport you because of a bill, whether you owe it or not and they do not work with bill collectors. The only exception is if you have been convicted in a criminal case that would be the basis for the INS to already be looking for you. In other words, if the INS is not looking for you already, this threat is just a part of the lie being used to scare you.
If anyone tries to scam you, it is important to do the following things:
- Get a name, phone number and, if possible, an address;
- DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY BANK ACCOUNT INFORMATION OR ANY CREDIT CARD INFORMATION
- If they keep calling tell them that you will call the police. Report them to the Maryland Attorney General Office, Consumer Protection Division- see- http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/CPD/complaint.aspx
See the following excellent pamphlets from the Federal Trade Commission that you can read on line in Spanish:
To show you that it takes a long time for a creditor to even get a judgment against you, below I have listed a very basic set of steps in a debt collection lawsuit. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as if you signed something called a “Confessed Judgment Note”, but the point is that this will take many months from the beginning of the case until the Plaintiff gets a judgment. That will give you time to consult with an attorney, such as me, to help you.
MOST OF ALL, REMEMBER THAT YOU HAVE RIGHTS, EVEN IF YOU ARE UNDOCUMENTED AND THE MORE THE BILL COLLECTOR TELLS YOU THIS HAS TO BE DONE IMMEDIATELY, THE MORE YOU TELL THEM YOU NEED TIME TO CONSULT WITH AN ATTORNEY.
STEPS OF A LAWSUIT TO COLLECT A DEBT
STEP 1- PLAINTIFF HAS TO FILE SUIT
STEP 2- PLAINTIFF HAS TO GET PAPERWORK BACK FROM COURT- THIS INCLUDES SUMMONS FOR DEFENDANT
STEP 3- PLAINTIFF HAS TO SERVE THE DEFENDANT WITH THE PAPERWORK
———- NOTE THAT THE PAPERWORK HAS TO BE PUT IN THE HANDS OF THE DEFENDANT OR AN ADULT LIVING WITH THE DEFENDANT. PLAINTIFF CAN ALSO SERVE LAWSUIT BY CERTIFIED MAIL OR SHERIFF’S SERVICE
STEP 4- PLAINTIFF MUST TELL COURT THAT DEFENDANT HAS BEEN SERVED
STEP 5- COURT WILL SET TRIAL DATE. IF DEFENDANT FILES “NOTICE OF INTENT TO DEFEND” THE DEFENDANT WILL BE GIVEN A TRIAL DATE TO APPEAR. IF PLAINTIFF FILES AN AFFIDAVIT, THEN DEFENDANT NEEDS TO FILE AN AFFIDAVIT ALSO
STEP 6- AFTER COURT DATE, COURT CAN GRANT JUDGMENT FOR PLAINTIFF
STEP 7- AFTER THAT, PLAINTIFF CAN TAKE ACTION, BUT CANNOT PUT DEFENDANT IN JAIL (UNLESS CONTEMPT OF COURT FOR FAILING TO ANSWER QUESTIONS AFTER JUDGMENT CALLED “POST JUDGMENT DISCOVERY”)
NOTE THAT THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS TO EVERY RULE & THE ABOVE APPLIES IN MOST DISTRICT COURT DEBT COLLECTIONS CASES, BUT SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES CAN APPLY