Did collection calls contribute to Floridian's death?

Florida law firm Morgan and Morgan filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit alleging that a company's collection calls were so frequent and harassing that they contributed to a person's death because they increased Stanley McLeod's blood pressure and stress levels.

McLeod's debt problems stemmed from the fact that he had difficulty paying his mortgage because he had to quit his job at Sears after suffering a massive heart attack.

Dianne McLeod, Stanley's wife, described how he would get 10 to 12 calls each day. With each call his face would turn red and he'd experience shortness of breath.

McLeod saved tapes of some of the messages left on their answering machine. One message even commented on the expensive helicopter ride that saved Stanley's life: "Get your act together and make the payments on your mortgage. Why don't you have that helicopter pick you up and bring that payment to the office."

Bill Howard, who heads the consumer protection unit of Morgan and Morgan, got a copy of those messages and filed the lawsuit. Now that Florida has passed strong consumer debt collection legislation, more Florida law firms are focusing on debt collection abuse.

Morgan and Morgan urges Floridians to save answering machine recordings if they get aggressive debt collection calls and includes this advice on a statewide advertising campaign to drum up business for the consumer protection unit. You can listen to some of the recordings they collected.

There are reprimands like this: "It's called a telephone. What you do is pick up the phone and you hold it near your face and you speak into it." Another debt collector called and said, "Hey Alphonse, cupcake, I am like right now climbing into your family background. I am going to dig up so deep up yours, you're going to wonder why you didn't do the right thing."

Florida law requires debt collectors to:
  • Send a written notice within five days after you are first contacted, telling you the amount of money you owe. The notice must also specify the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money and what action you should take if you believe you do not owe the money.
  • Limit their calls to reasonable times, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree to a different time.
  • Stop contacting you if you write a letter to the agency telling them to stop. Once the agency receives your letter, they may not contact you again except to say there will be no further contact, or to notify you if the debt collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action, such as file a lawsuit.
  • Stop contacting you if you say you don't owe the money unless they send proof of the debt, such as a copy of the bill.
Also, a debt collector can not harass or abuse anyone. They cannot:
  • Use threats of violence against the person, property or reputation.
  • Use obscene or profane language.
  • Advertise the debt.
  • Repeatedly or continuously make telephone calls with the intent to harass or abuse the person at the called number.
  • Tell you that you will be arrested if you do not pay; that they will seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so and has a legal right to do so; or that a lawsuit will be filed against you, when they have no legal right to file or do not intend to file such a suit.

Also, debt collectors must accurately disclose their identities to the person at the called number. They may not use false statements, such as falsely implying that they are attorneys, that you have committed a crime, or that they operate or work for a credit bureau or misrepresenting the amount of your debt. They cannot indicate the involvement of an attorney in collecting a debt or indicate that papers sent to you are legal forms when they are not.

The Florida provisions are similar to those in place nationally under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

The big difference for Floridians is that they have a strong consumer protection advocate in the Attorney General's office and law firms in Florida see a better chance to win lawsuits under the Florida law, which is why Morgan and Morgan and other Florida law firms are beginning to file suits. If you successfully file a lawsuit against the collection agency for violating state and/or federal law and prevail, you may be awarded your actual damages, as well as attorneys' fees and costs.

Even if you don't live in Florida, save any recordings from debt collectors that you believe prove harassment. You could end up with a successful claim and maybe win some of the money you need to help clear our your debt.

If you win, the judge can require the collector to pay you for any damages you can prove you suffered because of the illegal collection practices, like lost wages and medical bills. The judge can require the debt collector to pay up to $1,000, even if you can't prove that you suffered actual damages. A group of people also may sue a debt collector as part of a class action lawsuit and recover money for damages up to $500,000, or 1% of the collector's net worth, whichever amount is lower.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Credit Score."

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