(CBSDFW.COM) – Consumer debt hit $14.3 trillion during the first quarter, right as the pandemic began to unfold in the U.S, according to the New York Federal Reserve.
But the coronavirus will not stop creditors from calling or even filing lawsuits.
In times like these, the last person you probably want to hear from is a debt collector.
But the Federal Trade Commission suggests consumers speak with debt collectors, even if they are not immediately able to make payments.
“It may be worth talking with them at least one time to see if perhaps they can work out a settlement with you or a payment plan or to verify if this is something you owe,” said Reid Tepfer, an attorney with the FTC.
Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors can only make contact between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. If calls become overzealous, consumers can request that collectors stop calling by sending a formal letter.
“You’re still obligated to make payment, but you can request they quit contacting you,” Tepfer said.
Debt collectors are also not allowed to use profane language or make threats of violence.
While creditors can still file lawsuits against consumers during the pandemic, in many cases, they cannot garnish accounts until May 25, according to an emergency order issued by the Texas Supreme Court.
If a request for default judgment has been filed, the deadline to respond is May 18. If consumers don’t respond, they could face a default judgment.
If a receiver has already been appointed in a case, accounts cannot be frozen until May 18.
Dominic Ribaudo, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, said he has seen an uptick in applications from clients needing help with consumer debt.
Ribaudo said most of the cases involve credit card debt or medical debt.
“It’s just a mounting situation for people who are low-income trying to make ends meet,” said Ribuado, who serves people in the agency’s Denton office.
“People can’t be paying debts when they have no money,” said Ann Baddour, the director of the Fair Financial Services Project with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that focuses on public interest issues.
Baddour emphasized that people should make every effort to respond to these lawsuits, otherwise they could be on the hook for the money.
Texas Appleseed has compiled a list of debt collection rights.
Advocates like Baddour are pushing for more consumer protections, especially for stimulus payments.
After the emergency order expires, creditors and banks could seize that relief money once it hits a bank account.
“That’s our taxpayer money, money that we’re all going to pay back at some point,” Baddour said. “But for this moment right now, this is a time of emergency. It’s so important this money go to families in need.”
In Texas, debt collectors cannot garnish wages to repay consumer debt. However that money can be frozen or seized once it enters a bank account, Ribaudo said.
Social security benefits also cannot be garnished.
As part of an executive order, Dallas County exempted federal relief funds from garnishment, carving out an exception for child support payments.
“This provision is enacted to ensure Dallas County residents can use their CARES Act Recovery Payments for their housing, food, medical and other essential needs during the COVID-19 emergency period,” the order stated.
Last month, 25 attorneys general sent a letter, asking the U.S. Department of Treasury to protect federal relief payments from debt collectors.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has not signed onto the letter.
“If our office does sign onto this letter, I’m happy to send that your way at that time,” said Kayleigh Date, a spokeswoman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
People with federal student loans do not need to make monthly payments from March 13 through September 30, 2020, according to the Department of Education. In addition to suspending interest, the agency also has stopped the collection of federally-owned students loans in default.