Warybuyer Guide to Stopping Phone Harassment

You don’t have to put up with harassing or abusive phone calls. You don’t have to put up with phony law firms, phony claims about law suits, garnishment, or seizure of your property, or any other false, misleading or deceptive claims. Unfortunately, when a collector is calling you on the phone, it is hard to stop them from doing these things because it is hard to prove that the collector is violating the law.

The two most powerful weapons against this kind of harassment are your written call log and a tape recorder. These tools will help you document the abuse. The sooner you can document the abuse, the sooner you can get it stopped.

If you are being harassed by a debt collector, you should read the “Warybuyer Guide to Stopping Debt Collector Contact” for information about how to stop debt collectors from calling you at all. If a debt collector persists in calling you after you have taken the steps outlined in that guide, he can be liable to you for any call, not just harassing calls. Unfortunately, the rules for stopping contact only apply to debt collectors, not to creditors. For more information about the difference, read my What Debt Collection Law Applies page.

If you are being harassed by a creditor or by a debt collector who is ignoring your stop contact requests, then the techniques described in this guide are the best tools available to you to stop the abuse.

Keep a Call Log of All Calls With the Collector

I’ve created a simple call log form for you to use to log your calls. Print out several copies and keep them by your phone. Every time a debt collector calls, fill out a call record on the form. This will allow you to document how many times you were called, at what time of the day or night, and help you to remember what was said. Fill out call records for messages left on your answering machine or voice mail as well. I’ve posted an example of a call log form filled out so you can to give you a better idea of what the log should look like.

Record All Your Calls With the Collector

If you live in Texas it is legal for you to tape record your phone calls with another person. This is not true in all states. In some states, you have to get the permission of the other person on the phone to record the call. In Texas you don’t. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a website with extensive information about the telephone call recording laws in different states

Be careful about interstate calls. If the collector is calling from a state where recording without consent of both parties is illegal, your tape might not be admissible in court, or you could even be subject to prosecution in that state, although I think as a practical matter it is unlikely that an over-worked prosecutor would try to extradite someone in another state for prosecution of this type of crime. The safest course is not to tape if you know the debt collector is in a two party consent state.

If it is legal for you to record your phone calls with a debt collector, you should definitely do it. Nothing is more powerful in court than a recording of a debt collector using abusive or profane language. Without a tape recording, it will be your word against the collector’s. You can be sure that the collector will deny everything and pretend to be the kindest, gentlest soul imaginable when he gets to the courthouse. The best way to be sure that you can bring him to justice is with a tape.

If you can’t tape, then be sure to log the call and take detailed notes. You might even ask a friend or family member to listen in on an extension and take notes. While this is not as good as a tape, good, detailed notes can still be effective.

How do I tape a call so that the tape will be admissible in court?

It is not difficult to tape calls in such a way that they will be admissible. I’ve listed the steps you should follow for recording every phone call and answering machine or voice mail message you receive from a collector:

1. Use reliable equipment. You should make sure that your recording equipment works and that you know how to operate it. It is best to practice a few times just to make sure that you have the hang of it. If you don’t have tape recording equipment, Radio Shack is a good source. You don’t have to have anything expensive or fancy, just a basic cassette recorder and telephone pickup are all you need.

2. Record the entire call or as much of it as you can. If you are calling someone, this is easy, just start the tape before you start to dial. If you are receiving a call, start taping as soon as you realize who you are talking to. Do not try to record only portions of the call. A partial tape may not be admissible. If you have caller id, you can start the tape before you pick up the phone if you can tell from the caller id you want to record the call. Be sure to record voice mail and answering machine messages too.

3. Label the tape with your voice. Don’t stop taping when the call is over. After the other party has hung up, stay on the line and label the tape with your voice. Say:

“My name is _____. I have just made this recording of my conversation with ____. It is (time-don’t forget am and pm) on (date).

4. Check the tape. Rewind and listen to the recording of the call. Make sure that everything is clear. If something is not clear on the tape, make notes clarifying exactly what was said while it is still fresh in your memory. If you didn’t record the entire call, make notes with as much detail as you can, exact words if possible, of what was said but not recorded. Keep the notes with the tape.

5. When you are done, take the tape out of the machine and write the name of the person recorded and the date and time of the call on the tape. Don’t use the tape again. Punch out the little tab on the top of the tape so that it cannot be accidentally recorded over. Use a fresh tape for the next call. If your answering machine records messages onto tape and a collector has left you a message, there is no need to re-record the message. Simply remove that tape from the machine and label and log it just as you would a call. Put a fresh tape in the machine.

6. Remember that you are being taped too! Everything you say on the tape will be subjected to scrutiny by the court. Be yourself. Do not say anything that is false or misleading. Do not try to trick the other person into saying anything. Do not try to threaten or intimidate the other person, either by raising your voice or by using offensive language. You will want to present yourself to the jury as a calm, reasonable person who did not deserve to be treated the way you were treated. If you are as abusive as the person you are talking to, the tape will hurt your case.

Here is a summary of these points that you can keep by the phone:

Steps for Recording Phone Calls

1. Record the Entire Call

2. Label the Call With Your Voice.

“My name is _____. I have just made this recording of my conversation with ______. It is (time) (am and pm) on (date).

3. Check The Tape.

Make notes of anything that is missing or unclear.

4. Label the tape with the name of the other party and the date and time of the call. Only record 1 call on a tape.

5. Remember, The Jury is Listening!

Be truthful. Don’t try to trick anyone. Be calm and reasonable. Don’t yell or use offensive language.

More Information About Recording Equipment

The best recording equipment is something that is easy for you to use. Ideally, you should be able to turn it on and start recording by pressing only one button.

There are 3 common ways to connect a tape recorder to a phone. One is by means of a suction cup microphone that attaches to the handset. The second is by means of an interface box that you can plug into the phone between the phone and the handset, and the third is by means of the headset jack that is built into many new phones. All of these will make a good recording, but the suction cups are the least reliable as they tend to get knocked or pulled off of the phone.

Be careful of high end machines that automatically begin recording whenever someone uses the phone. Some of these work even when the person using the phone is using a different phone from the one connected to the recorder. If this device records a call made by someone else, either a member of your family or a guest in your home, you’ve just violated the wiretap laws, because you recorded a phone call between two third parties. While these devices are great for making sure that you record every collector’s call, you have to be careful to avoid breaking the law yourself. When one of these devices is installed, attach a note to each telephone in your house advising the person using the phone that their call is being recorded.

Isn’t it unethical for you to advise me to tape a phone call?

No. The Texas State Bar issued an ethics opinion in 1996 that makes it clear that I can advise you to tape your phone calls with debt collectors. The opinion basically says three things:

1. As an attorney, I may not secretly record my phone calls with others, even though it is legal, because I am held to a higher ethical standard than the general public.

2. I can advise you that you may secretly record your phone calls with others (at least in states like Texas, where doing so is legal).

3. I can’t try to circumvent the prohibition on attorney taping by asking you to tape record a phone call that you and I are having with a third person.