Reclaiming your Telephone from Bill Collectors
Anyone who's ever been in financial trouble knows that bill collectors can drive you absolutely crazy with their incessant (and sometimes illegal) telephone calls, sometimes laden with foul language, illegal threats of arrest, and other tactics designed to intimidate and "break down" debtors.
Unfortunately, until you've actually filed for bankruptcy, debt collectors do in fact have the right to call you (unless you've retained an attorney and informed all your creditors, in which case debt collectors must call your attorney). Once you do retain an attorney, the only information you should provide to bill collectors is your attorney's name, address, and phone number. If they call again after being informed that you have retained counsel, let your attorney know.
In addition, once your bankruptcy has gone through, don't be surprised if you start receiving a second wave of phone calls from lenders -- sometimes the same ones whose claims were discharged in the bankruptcy -- offering you new credit cards. Hang up on them! The deals are usually rotten. Some collection agencies may also try to collect debt that has already been discharged, sometimes by mistake, or sometimes because they're criminals. Don't be surprised if that happens, either.
Reclaiming your Land line Phone
Fortunately, you can avoid all of these annoyances by reclaiming your phone from bill collectors by buying an inexpensive VOIP service and device. VOIP stands for Voice over Internet Protocol, and its a way to transmit voice telephone service over the Interwebs at a fraction of the cost of traditional POTS land line service. There are many VOIP providers, but I'm only going discuss two: MagicJack and Google Voice.
Whichever service you choose, the idea is to have a dirt-cheap number that you can give to everyone except your family and closest friends, and keep your "real" number private, whether that number is a mobile number or a conventional land line. So basically, all the people you never want to hear from will have the VOIP number, and the people important to you will have the land line or mobile number.
The thing to remember is that this little bit of sleight-of-hand will only work if you make sure to never call anyone you don't want to have your "real" number from any phone other than the VOIP phone or its associated mobile phone app, otherwise the called party will be able to get your number from the caller ID. Even worse, if you call a toll-free number, the called party can get your number from the ANI even if you have Caller ID blocked. Long story short, never call anyone -- especially a bank or a bill collector -- from any phone number that you don't want them to have. Get a cheap VOIP account instead.
Please note that either of the VOIP solutions on this page require that you have high-speed Internet (or a high-speed data plan on your cell phone if you use the phone app).
The MagicJack is a little gizmo that plugs into your Internet router or your computer's USB port. You plug a phone into the other end, activate your account online, and a few minutes later, voila, you have a working phone number. And get this: The cost is only about forty bucks a year for unlimited service anywhere in the United States, and either six months or a year of service is included with the device, depending on which one you buy.
MagicJack also have a phone app that you can install on your mobile phone to make it look like the calls are coming from your Magic Jack number (which they will be, actually) without having to have a physical phone connected to the device.
The service quality on the MagicJack is actually decent considering the price. If you have a fast Internet connection and aren't using a lot of bandwidth doing other things, most of your calls should be acceptably clear. If you have a router with QOS capability, you can set aside a slice of bandwidth for the MagicJack, and then all or nearly all of your calls should be acceptably clear.
Google Voice is even less-expensive than MagicJack. In fact, most Google Voice calls within the United States are free. You also don't need to buy any device at all if you don't want to. You can make and receive Google Voice calls from your computer using one of several apps, or from your Android phone or iPhone using the official app from Google.
If you want to use a conventional phone with Google Voice, that's no problem either. All you need is an Obihai VOIP adapter with Google Voice support. These devices work a lot like a MagicJack, but most of them support multiple connections and providers. Some people say they also deliver better voice quality. You basically plug one side into your router and plug your phone into the other. Sometimes you may have to open a port on the router. Also, like the MagicJack, your quality will be more consistent if you have a QoS router and reserve a slice of bandwidth for the Obihai device.
As with the MagicJack, Google Voice's call quality is highly dependent on the quality of your Internet connection. If you have a good connection, your call quality should be acceptable or even very good. If you have a slow or unstable connection, then not so much.
Once again, whichever service you use, make sure that that is the only number you ever use to call bill collectors and people who you don't want to know your "real" number. Once that's the only number any of those people have, you can mute the ringer on that phone (or even not bother connecting a phone to the device), and you never have to be bothered by those people again. Bill collectors and banks do have the right to ask you for your phone number. But there's no law that requires you to answer your phone.
Reclaiming your Cell Phone
Anyone who believes that their cell phone number is secret is very naive. It takes minutes for bill collectors to find your mobile number if that number is registered to you or if you have ever used it to call a bank or bill collector. Fortunately, prepaid cell phone providers don't give a rat's ass about your real identity. You just buy a cheap prepaid phone over the counter or online, pay for it in cash, register it using whatever bogus name you want, and make sure to always buy your refill cards in cash. Because you never provide your real identity, no bill collector will be able to look up your number by your name.
If you already own an unlocked GSM phone, then you don't even need a new phone. Just buy a prepaid SIM card for a carrier that works well where you'll be using the phone. Make sure that your particular device is supported, of course; but almost all GSM phones can use prepaid SIMS.
Whichever route you take to reclaiming your cell phone privacy, the important things to remember are to always pay cash for your refill cards, and to never call a bank or bill collector from your cell phone (unless you're using one of the apps mentioned earlier, which will cloak your number). As soon as you call a financial institution or bill collector from your uncloaked cell phone, your cell phone number will wind up on your credit file; and from that point on, every bill collector in the world will be able to find it. At that point you can just stop paying the bill, buy a new prepaid SIM card (if you have a GSM phone), and get a new number; but you'll also have to provide that new number to everyone whom you do want to have your cell number. It's a drag.
As an added bonus, prepaid cell service is cheaper than postpaid service, but is otherwise essentially identical. I still use prepaid for that reason even though I have no longer have any need to hide from bill collectors. I use AT&T as my carrier, and yes, they do know who I really am. They have to because I let them automatically bill my American Express card for the service every month. It saves me five bucks a month on the cost, and I don't have to worry about forgetting to pay my bill.
Protecting Your Cell Phone Number
Once you have a new mobile phone number that nobody knows, you have to protect it. The most important thing, obviously, is to never give the number to a bank or other financial institution, a utility company, a bill collector, a business, or anyone who grants credit. That's obvious. Once you give any of these organizations a phone number, it will only be a matter of days before it's in databases available to bill collectors (such as credit reporting agencies). So if they ask for your cell phone number, simply say no. If they persist, then hang up or walk away. No one can force you to provide them with a cell phone number, no matter how hard they try to convince you that they can.
The fine print on almost every banking agreement I've ever read -- and I read all of them before I agree to them -- states that the financial institution has the right to contact me on any number I provide, including my cell phone number. So I don't give it to them. If I'm opening the account online, I leave that field blank. I've never come across an application that really requires a cell number (even if it has it listed as a "required field.") If I'm opening the account in person, then I leave my cell phone in the car and tell them that I don't have one. I'm not lying: At that particular moment in time I don't have one because I left it in the car.
Another sneaky way that your cell phone number can be compromised is through smartphone apps. Most of them are coded to capture the phone number of the device on which they're installed. If the permissions the app requests include "Phone," "SMS," Device Information," "Contacts," or "Identity," you may want to reconsider whether you really need that app.
Finally, once again, never to call a bank, credit union, bill collector, credit reporting agency, or anyone else connected to the world of banking from your cell phone. Never, ever, ever. They will grab the number and add it to your profile; and within days, every bill collector in the world will have access to it. I can't stress this strongly enough.
Is Avoiding Bill Collectors Ethical?
That's up to you to decide, but here's my take on it.
If the majority of bill collectors actually followed the law rather than being malicious scoundrels, then I wouldn't advocate avoiding them. The problem is that in reality, the vast majority of bill collectors I've dealt with have been absolute dirt bags who seemed to delight in violating as many provisions of the FDCPA as they could in a single phone call. If ever there were a profession that seems thoroughly dominated by sociopaths who get off on intimidating and humiliating others, it is the debt collection industry.
Consequently, I've come to the conclusion that absolutely any lawful means you choose to use to avoid bill collectors is perfectly ethical: and all of the methods I've suggested above are perfectly lawful. If you feel differently, I respect your opinion. But I also respectfully disagree. Taking measures to protect your privacy from scoundrels intent on harassing you every waking hour of the day is your right, as far as I'm concerned.