There is usually slip at the bottom of the letter touting countless Visa and Mastercard logos and methods to pay and the letter has a reference which is longer than the spelling of a Snowdonian village.
On closer inspection the letter has come from a “commercial debt recovery and investigations centre” – usually somewhere in the north of England. Often it will explain – surprisingly – that their “clients” have made numerous attempts to contact you. Sometimes the letter will be accompanied by a threat to visit your home address or to have their ever watchful local representative (who you feel seems to be hiding in the bushes outside your house) visit you at work, creating pandemonium over that unpaid £38.00 telephone bill.
You panic and with one hand you duly scrap around looking for your bank statements in order to make a payment and with the other you reach for your telephone to call the all knowing “investigators” and make a cringing apology for the delay.
Of course you have had a letter from the “debt collector”. It is annoying and extremely worrying and a great cause for concern given the way data protection is heading.
What is the legal effect of any such letter? Not great at all is the answer.
It is a fact that even the most law abiding of people will get a debt collection letter at some stage in their life, and increasingly on a regular basis.
The first thing to do is to check whether you owe the money at all. For instance one debt collection firm is well known for trying to collect moneys from move- in “void” periods where people who have just moved in to a property are having demands made of them by a utility company ( such as gas or electricity) which supplied their predecessor. Often it is because the predecessor left without paying their final bill and there is some doubt as to when the new occupier took a reading or entered into the property. Many people forget to take any reading at until connecting to their new utility provider so they just pay up – jamboree time for the utility company and the debt collector – who often works on a percentage of whatever is recovered.
Whilst we advise that each individual case would need to be looked at on its merits, the reality is that many such letters have very little legal effect. Absent your explicit agreement, generally only Her Majesties courts can decide whether you are liable to pay something or not. Without a court order, there can be no enforcement. So a “creditor” or their legal bully- the “debt recovery agent” -can write to you as much as they like – but you do not have to pay, and if you do not owe anything of course you can completely disregard the warning..
The ability of “debt recovery agencies”, or “debt collectors” – the modern day version of the doorstep hardnut, – to pursue individuals has been made easier by the abuse of data protection laws and the requirement to leave your life details on even the most minor of transactions, fuelled primarily by the banks and credit organisations. Your local authority and government organisations also have a big responsibility for this . An ordinarily law abiding citizen can find themselves on a credit black list for a debt completely out of proportion to the amount which is owed.
Moreover, the position is being made worse by the “Snoopers Charter” ( more correctly the Communication Data Act). This proposed legislation obliges internet service providers to keep all records of their customers’ online activity for 12 months. This includes every email, posting on a social networking site, video or telephone calls over the internet.
Intended originally to curb terrorist activity and developed on behalf of MI5 and MI6, thirty six organisations have applied to get hold of your personal information, including local authorities, NHS trusts, the Environment Agency, the Charity Commission and the Pensions Regulator . That is a lot of “jobsworths” who seem to think their positions are vital to national security. And the debt collector wants this information too.
Some people might say that if you pay your bills you have nothing to worry about – but try telling that to someone who has had the umpteenth unlawful deduction from their utility or other provider, just because they wanted to take advantage of the extra 10% off they get by paying direct debit.
The availability of data has emboldened debt collectors, so much so that their correspondence and behaviour is often bordering on the illegal.
So what can you do? Well first of all, consider paying a debt if it is properly due. Pay it direct to the creditor and not to the debt collector. If the situation is more complicated, then see a solicitor. But if you cannot afford that, then you can tell a debt collector – politely – to “push off”. Tell them in writing and tell them that you will consider any further attempts to contact you or to threaten to visit your home or place of work to be harassment. Tell them that they or their representatives have no authority from you to come on to your property and that if they do you will consider that to be trespass. Add for good measure that if they make any attempt to visit you at work and you lose out as a result – including losing your job- then you shall pursue them to the end of the earth for damages for your losses.
The fact is that until you get a document with the Queens crest on it, you are under no obligation to pay anything. However, the ability now to snoop on all you do means that inevitably we will all soon become a nation of “criminals by default” , held to ransom by the jobsworths who can access your data – and , worse still, by the debt collectors who act for those jobsworths.