Know your rights: There is a way to stop debt collectors from contacting you

Dec. 24, 2011 at 6:24 a.m.

By Richard Alderman

How do you get collection agencies to stop calling for really old debts? They keep calling about a 15-year-old debt.

As I have said before, even if a debt is 15 years old, you still owe it and a collector can ask you to pay. After seven years, however, it should no longer appear on your credit report and after four years it is too late to sue. In other words, you still have a moral obligation to pay old debts, but you cannot be legally forced to pay. If you have decided that you are not going to pay the debt, federal law allows you to stop all further communication by sending a letter to the debt collector demanding it stop. I suggest you send the letter by certified mail. If the debt collector continues to harass you, it will be violating federal and state debt collection laws. To learn more about our debt collection laws, visit my website,

I spoke with my neighbor about replacing our fence. She told me to go ahead, she would "pay half." Now she won't pay. What are my rights?

As a general rule, unless there is a community association rule requiring costs be divided, neighbors do not have an obligation to split the costs of a fence. The neighbor's promise to "pay half," however, may be enforceable. If someone simply makes a promise to pay you money, for example to make a gift, the law will not enforce that promise. On the other hand, if someone makes a promise and you act in reliance on that promise, it becomes legally enforceable. Based on what you say, you relied on your neighbor's promise when you decided to build the fence. In my opinion that makes her promise enforceable. I suggest you let her know you expect to be paid, and consider small claims court if she doesn't pay.

My friend took a loan out from a small loan company. She is behind and they are calling threatening to have her arrested. Can she be arrested? How long would she spend in jail?

Not paying your debts is a civil, not criminal, matter and you cannot be arrested. We no longer have debtor's prison. In fact, in my opinion threatening to have her arrested violates both state and federal debt collection laws. I suggest she let them know she knows her legal rights and that she expects they will work with her to come up with a payment plan. She also may want to file a complaint with the Texas Consumer Complaint Center to see if it can help,

I am trying to lease an apartment. When they ran a background check they found an old criminal record. Can I be denied a lease because of this? It was more than 20 years ago.

As far as the law is concerned, a landlord may decide to whom he will rent and can discriminate against certain classes of people, unless the law prohibits such discrimination. For example, the law prohibits sex or age discrimination so a landlord cannot refuse to rent to women or to people above a certain age. There is no law, however, prohibiting discrimination based on a criminal record. If the landlord wants to refuse to rent to someone with a misdemeanor or a felony, he may. About all I can suggest is that you explain the situation to the landlord, and demonstrate that you are someone who will be a good tenant.

I have a small construction business. I have not been paid for a job. How long do I have to file a claim in small claims court?

Your claim is for breach of contract. In Texas you have four years to file a lawsuit for breach of contract.

I was in a car accident. The adjuster says because the repairs will cost more than the car is worth they consider the vehicle "totaled." They have offered me what the car was worth before the accident. The amount they offered me is less than the amount I still owe the bank. Am I responsible for the difference?

The purpose of insurance is to put you back in the same position you were before the accident. If your car is "totaled," that is instead of repairing it the insurance company gives you the value of the car, you will still owe whatever amount is remaining on your car note. In theory, you are in the same position you were before the accident. If you receive the value of the car, you should be able to go out and purchase a used car similar to your car, for the money you receive. If you do, you will be put back in the same position you were before the accident. The problem, however, is that it is often difficult to find a car in the same condition as the car you lost for the money you receive. The best way to avoid this problem is to be sure that the adjuster properly values your car. If you feel the car is being undervalued, do a little research and show the adjuster how much you think you should receive.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at



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