This week: A reader asks about debt collectors, repo men, and "Fonzi" schemes.

Question: Can you settle a bet for me? My girlfriend says it’s illegal for debt collectors to ring my doorbell and threaten me. She says that’s federal law, and they’re not even supposed to call me after dinnertime. She says she even told a debt collector not to call her on Sundays, and they stopped.

But if that’s true, then how come I had my car repossessed on Christmas Day, which was a Sunday and they came in the middle of the night and didn’t even give me any warning?

She also says you can’t go to jail for more than 30 days for being in debt, but what about Bernie Madoff? He ran a Fonzi scheme and got caught when it ran out of money. He got life.

So I think my girlfriend is full of it. Whoever’s wrong has to buy an expensive dinner for the other. So who is it, Howard?

— Andy in Mississippi

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

If I understand your question correctly, Andy, your girlfriend may still be dealing with debt collectors — while you’ve had a car repossessed just a few months ago.

Before I settle your bet, I beg you: Settle your debts. I’d worry less about paying for “an expensive dinner” and more about paying expensive interest rates, penalties, and fees.

Financial education can help you conquer your debt

I’ve often written about the psychology of debt, and I see that at work here, Andy. You and your girlfriend have probably struggled with debt for so long, you’ve given up trying to conquer it. I’ve seen many otherwise intelligent people ignore their debts and hope they’ll go away. Of course, they never do. In fact, when debt really piles up, the debt collectors come calling.

There are proven ways to conquer your debts. One of those is financial education. A little can save you a lot, especially in your current situation.

That’s why the answer to your original question is: Neither of you is completely right, but your girlfriend is less wrong.

It’s Ponzi not Fonzi

Let’s start with the obvious. There’s no such thing as a “Fonzi” scheme. It’s Ponzi scheme. The former was the coolest character on the 1970s sitcom Happy Days. The latter was a 1920s crook who popularized the crime of paying investors not with interest on their money, but with money from new investors.

Bernie Madoff got caught when his Ponzi scheme collapsed, but being broke wasn’t why he was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. He defrauded investors.

Next, let’s talk about the difference between debt collectors and “repo men.” As you can read more thoroughly in the report Can a Debt Collector Come to My House?, there’s a difference between recovering debt and property.

Debt collectors operate under a federal law repo men don’t. It’s called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA. Your girlfriend is correct about the law being federal, but she’s wrong about some particulars.

For instance, debt collectors can’t call at night. “Dinnertime” isn’t mentioned. Also, debt collectors can’t call at a time when you tell them you can’t receive calls. However, they can’t call you on Sundays regardless. There’s nothing in the law that prevents them from coming to your home, but it does regulate what they can do when they get there.

Here’s a video that sums up the rules…

Finally, you’re both wrong about being jailed for debt. Before the 183os, you could be sentenced to “debtor’s prison.” These days, as has reported, “if a collector threatens you with jail time, they’re almost always violating the law and you have a right to fight back.

Sorry for the long answer, Andy, but I hope it convinces you to forgo the expensive dinner and consult a debt expert to get help. If you don’t call, I beg you to call somebody.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched I’m glad you’re here.

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