Credit card debt and debt collectors

Woman has credit card debt cut by $22,950 after collectors continue to harass.

Crossing the line

A noteworthy Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) ruling has reduced a woman's credit card debt by $22,950 due to harassment by debt collectors.

Under debt collection guidelines, creditors are prohibited from trying to collect a debt while it's the subject of a FOS dispute. The woman had requested that the financial services provider stop calling her so often and finally lodged an FOS complaint to that effect, but at least 27 collection calls were made while FOS was considering the matter.

It's against Australian Consumer Law for debt collectors or salespeople to use overly heavy-handed tactics. But where does the law draw the line? We explain this and your rights in our article on harassment and coercion.

FOS determined that each of the calls was a separate violation. In the first instance, it reduced the woman's debt by $3000 on one credit card and $500 on a second card where debt collectors breached guidelines but called less frequently.

FOS then awarded the woman an additional $200 on top of the $3000 and increased the fine by $50 for each of the other collection calls. In the end, FOS reduced the woman's long-standing credit card debt by $22,950.

What are my rights as a debtor?

Creditors are allowed to collect debts, but they're not allowed to harass you. Under ACCC debt collection guidelines released in July this year, creditors must be "flexible, fair and realistic".

"Debtors may default on their debts because of circumstances beyond their control, such as unemployment, illness or family breakdown," the ACCC notes. "While there are cases of fraud and deliberate evasion, most people are honest and want to meet their commitments if given a reasonable opportunity to do so."

Being flexible includes "recognising debtors who are vulnerable and experiencing financial hardship, and recognising that debtors may have a number of debts owing to different creditors".

What debt collectors can't do

  • Inform a third party about a debt, including a spouse, partner or other family member.
  • Use email or social media to contact a debtor unless the collector is sure no one else has access to the communication channel.
  • Contact a debtor through a communication channel that the debtor has requested not be used.
  • Misrepresent their identity, such as saying they work for a solicitor or are a court or government official.
  • Contact a debtor multiple times per day (ACCC guidelines recommend no more than 10 contacts per month).
  • Continue to try to collect a debt if the alleged debtor denies liability and the creditor can't prove the person is responsible for the debt.

Check out our consumer rights section for articles on your rights when it comes to products and services, and how to take action or make a complaint.