Debt collector hell? Know your rights

Last year, Jennifer Dicks bought a Chevy Cavalier, she says, from a company that promised a 100% approval rate on auto loans. Then times got tougher, and now she's checking her pots for bunny stew.

In January, after she fell two months behind on payments, her car was repossessed despite the fact she said she'd paid up -- AFN had hidden a GPS device in it to track it down. She got it back, but by April, the tussle began again, this time accompanied by a flurry of phone calls and text messages ordering her to turn the car back in.Here are a few choice nuggets from the text messages allegedly sent by the debt collector: "You are just a loser," "I also have pics of [your boyfriend] in hospital after his cycle wreck" and my favorite, "I wish you died..."

Then the company, Auto Financing Network, went and bought Jennifer Dicks' name as a domain. It redirects to AFN's regular site, but at the top of the home page is the announcement "Jennifer Dicks isn't paying for her Cavalier!" (The site's no longer up.)

Just because you may owe money doesn't mean you've given up your rights. You may lose your rights to keep the car, especially if you broke the terms of your payment agreement, but repo men are subject to the same laws that the rest of us are -- in fact, more, as I'll explain in a second -- and although they can insult you and tell yo momma jokes as much as the First Amendment permits, they can't threaten you outright.

Unfortunately, repossession is a growth industry, and it's attracting people with little to no legal training who may not have gotten the memo that threatening and stalking isn't allowed even if you do owe money. Some of these folks may have seen a few too many episodes of Dog The Bounty Hunter. You may feel ashamed about not paying on time, and that may make you think you ought to take your lumps, but you still have protections and you shouldn't be afraid to go to court to secure a restraining order or file suit, if necessary.

The federal government has clearly laid out laws -- not guidelines, but laws -- for how debtors may treat you. It's called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and you can read a layman's explanation of your rights here and you can read the full text of the Act by downloading a PDF of it here. I probably don't need to say that AFN's tactics may not fit into the rules.

That's exactly what Jennifer Dicks did. She filed a complaint in Arizona Superior Court (download the PDF here) that alleges consumer fraud, invasion of privacy, and defamation.

AFN is rallying up a response for its behavior (prepare yourself for the age-old "bad apple" excuse), but in the meantime, I direct you to its stated mottos for doing business last year: "#1 Treat Customer Right #2 Treat Customer Right #3 Treat Customer Right."

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