What to do if you're being harassed by debt collectors
Soaring unemployment levels from the coronavirus crisis on top of the second-highest level of household debt in the world means Australians need to know their rights when it comes to dealing with debt collectors.
While it is legal for debt collectors to help retrieve owed money on behalf of a creditor, they aren't allowed to resort to bullying or harassment. You don't need to live in fear of a knock on the door by shady individuals at 3am.
"If you have companies chasing you for debts it's important to remember that you have rights and there are laws in place to protect you from harassment," says Katherine Temple form the Consumer Action Law Centre.
Debt collectors are subject to Australian Consumer Law. According to the government's Moneysmart website, there are clear restrictions around when and how they're allowed to contact you.
- Monday to Friday, 7:30am to 9pm. Weekends 9am to 9pm.
- no more than three times a week, or up to 10 times a month.
- not on national public holidays.
Face to face
- only as a last option if you haven't responded to phone calls or other ways to contact you.
- any day between 9am and 9pm.
Email and social media
- only if they're reasonably sure you don't share your account and only you can see your messages.
They also can't trespass, intimidate, mislead, or take advantage of an illness, disability, age, or lack of understanding of the law. Nor can they discuss your financial situation without your permission.
"If a debt collector threatens you with physical force, contact the police. If they are harassing or intimidating you, ask them in writing to stop. If the debt collector continues to harass you, make a complaint to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority."
Debt collectors can make contact with you only with a reasonable purpose. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission defines these as:
- making a demand for payment
- making arrangements for repayment
- finding out why an agreed repayment plan has not been met
- reviewing a repayment plan after an agreed period of time
- inspecting or recovering mortgaged goods (if they have a right to do so).
It's usually possible to offer a reduced lump-sum payment or work out a payment plan to repay the debt.
The Moneysmart website has a handy budgeting tool to calculate how much you can realistically afford to repay.
Whatever agreement you reach with a debt collector, make sure you offer it, and receive acceptance of it, in writing. If you can't afford to pay the debt, you can call a financial counsellor on 1800 007 007 for free independent advice.
There are a number of places you can turn for assistance if you believe a debt collector has overstepped the mark.
Respective state and territory legal services providing free advice can be found via Moneysmart.
If you believe they've breached privacy laws by sharing your information, you can contact make a complaint to the office of the privacy commissioner on its website.
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