4 things to know if you're harassed by debt collectors
Know your rights to protect from annoying collection agents, consumer advocate says
Bill collectors in Canada often use aggressive tactics to chase consumers, sometimes even managing to reel in payments when no credit was owed in the first place.
Some practices — such as daily phone calls, threatening language, accosting friends and relatives, or contacting debtors during late-night or early-morning hours — amount to illegal behaviour, depending on the province or territory.
A CBC News investigation found that employees at one U.S.-based debt-collection firm operating in Ontario and Quebec knowingly contacted non-debtors. The company was fined in two provinces for violations and was the subject of hundreds of complaints over several years, with one former worker saying that consumers have been pressured in the past to make payments just to stop being badgered.
But Bruce Cran, the B.C.-based president of the independent Consumers' Association of Canada, said it's not always best practice to hang up on credit agents or simply ignore them. One smart way for people to protect themselves against harassment is to know their rights.
"The time's come when people are looking for clarification because they're getting annoyed," he said. "Some of these debts we're talking about are so small, like $38 from eight years ago — it's ridiculous."
Here are a few questions you should know the answers to (the rules in Canada vary, so links to specific provincial laws are provided at the bottom of this story):
When can credit agencies contact you?
Getting unexpected visits or phone calls from a debt collector can be stressful enough. Many provinces try to protect Canadians from being solicited at inconvenient times.
Collection firm no-no's:
- Trying to collect a debt without first notifying you in writing or making a reasonable attempt to do so.
- Recommending or starting legal or court action to collect a debt without first notifying you.
- Communicating with you or your family such that the communication amounts to harassment, or calling to collect a debt at certain prohibited times (which vary from one province or territory to another).
- Implying or giving false or misleading information to anyone.
- Communicating or attempting to communicate with you without identifying themselves, saying who is owed the money and stating the amount owed.
- Continuing to demand payment from a person who claims not to owe the money, unless the agency first takes all reasonable steps to ensure that the person does, in fact, owe the money.
- Contacting your friends, employer, relatives or neighbours for information, other than to get your telephone number or address. An exception would be if any of these people have guaranteed the debt or if you have asked the agency to contact them to discuss the debt or, in the case of your employer, to confirm your employment, your job title and your work address.
— Source: Canadian Consumer Handbook
Cran said one person in London, Ont., complained to the Consumers' Association of Canada when she was jolted awake at 3 a.m. by knocking and shouting outside her home.
"This woman had this debt collector banging with his fists on the door, calling out details of the particular debt that she had, and insisting that she pay it," Cran said. "And when he left, there was a large piece of paper with the details of the debt tacked to her door."
The rules in most provinces state that credit agencies are prohibited from contacting consumers between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Those hours are a little more flexible in Alberta, which allow firms to contact people from 7 a.m. up until 10 p.m., as well as in Newfoundland and Labrador, which allows contact from 8 a.m. up until 10 p.m.
Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. law won’t allow collection agents to call a suspected debtor before 8 a.m., and Manitoba restricts calls or visits before 7 a.m.
Sundays are also partially prohibited days in most provinces, as are statutory holidays.
How often can collection firms contact you?
Cran said it's not uncommon for some Canadian collection firms to get their agents to phone or visit debtors daily, including on Sundays.
Yukon Territory legislation mentions that agents must not make calls with such frequency that it could be considered harassment.
But in Ontario, debt collectors can't email, leave voice mail or speak in person with the consumer more than three times in one week after the first conversation with you. The only permissible means of communicating is by regular mail. Alberta and Nova Scotia have a similar "three strikes" rule limiting the amount of contact from collectors within a seven-day consecutive period.
"One of the things you can do in B.C. and most other provinces is inform these people that they're not to contact you, but they can only contact you by mail," Cran said. "After you've done that, they're not allowed to phone you."
Some provinces — such as Ontario, B.C., Quebec, Alberta, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia — have laws stating that contact must cease if the consumer has "properly disputed" the debt owed. A person can contest the debt in writing and send a registered letter to the agency informing the firm that the case can be taken up in court.
Can the debt collector lie or threaten legal action?
Deception could be part of an unscrupulous collection business's arsenal of dirty tricks.
Nearly every province or territory has a consumer protection law specifically addressing the use of bogus legal documents or false information to mislead the debtor.
Misinformation can run the gamut from lying about the amount of debt owed to pretending to be someone different (for example, posing as a lawyer) to threatening to sue when the collection firm has no intention or authority to do so.
As far as verbal abuse goes, Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are among the provinces that state that collection agents cannot use profane, intimidating, or "coercive" language when dealing with debtors. Alberta and Northwest Territories also mention that collection agents may not threaten physical harm.
Can they ask other people about you?
In general in Canada, collectors can’t approach a debtor's family, friends or employer, though Cran said he's heard of agents showing up in public venues to accost a debtor about outstanding bills.
"They'll find out where you congregate, maybe after lunch or after work where you’ve gone to have a beer, and they’ll approach you in front of friends — anything to embarrass you," Cran said.
New Brunswick's regulations state that a collector can’t threaten to embarrass a debtor with information about credit woes.
There are a couple exceptions to rules prohibiting communication with friends, family and co-workers.
For example, the agent may, in some cases, contact a target debtor’s acquaintances in order to track down a mailing address. There might also be exceptions for speaking with a neighbour or family member who has agreed to act as a guarantor for the repayment of the debt.
More information on provincial and territorial laws pertaining to collection agencies:
- Ontario: Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services
- British Columbia: Consumer Protection BC and Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act
- Alberta: Service Alberta: Bill Collection and Debt
- Yukon Territory: Yukon Community Services - Tips - Collection Agencies
- Northwest Territories: NWT Consumer Protection Act and Consumer Affairs Tips - Collection Agencies
- Saskatchewan: The Collection Agents Act
- Manitoba: Government of Manitoba - Collection Practices
- Nova Scotia: Access Nova Scotia - Collectors and Collection Agencies Act
- Quebec: An act respecting the collection of certain debts and Les comptes en souffrance
- New Brunswick: Public Legal Education and Information Service
- Prince Edward Island: Collections Agencies Act and Department of Environment, Labour and Justice
- Newfoundland and Labrador: Service NL - Collection Agencies
- Nunavut: Nunavut Department of Justice and Current Consulidated Statutes and Regulations
With files from CBC's Annie Burns-Pieper