The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says that if a collection company is trying to get you to settle a debt, they can only call you between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
And Benjamin and Cynthia Washington say that's exactly what happened.
Starting as early as 8:05 in the morning, and continuing until as late as 8:55 at night, HSBC's debt collectors would call the Washingtons about a mortgage contract on their Ohio home, the couple alleges in a complaint filed this week in federal court.
What the Washingtons say happened to them fits with a larger pattern of intrusiveness in the collections industry.
According to a recent report, the weak economy means more consumers are struggling to pay their bills these days -- and more debt collectors are taking a high-pressure approach with the people they call. Some collectors lob insults and threats at the person on the other end of the line, while others try to squeeze customers for debt that's so old that it's gone off the books.
For the Washingtons, the worst part seems to have been what Troy Doucet called an "onslaught" of phone calls.
"It's put them in an extremely difficult position," Doucet, whose law firm is handling the Washingtons' case, told The Huffington Post.
The complaint alleges that the collectors would call the Washingtons seven days a week, sometimes as many as 14 times a day; that the calls were placed from January through March of this year; and that Cynthia Washington experienced so much "stress, anxiety, and depression" as a result that her blood pressure went up and she had to be placed on medication.
"Even the phone ringing, at this point, triggers an emotional and physical reaction with her," said Doucet.
HSBC did not make a spokesperson available to HuffPost for comment.
The Washingtons' complaint says that HSBC's collectors threatened them with foreclosure, and that on at least six separate occasions, representatives of HSBC actually showed up in their neighborhood -- either to speak with one of the Washingtons, to leave a note on the front door saying to call the bank. At times, the complaint alleges, collectors would stand "just outside of the property line" and take pictures of the house, where Benjamin and Cynthia live with their four children.
Doucet told HuffPost that it's not even clear whether HSBC actually has the authority to enforce or collect on the Washingtons' mortgage -- that authority may in fact belong to another party. The Washingtons' complaint alleges that their original lender was a company called MorEquity, Inc., and that they were working with an unnamed third party to settle their debt -- a fact the Washingtons allegedly made clear to HSBC's collectors. Still, the complaint says the calls kept coming.
"At some point, HSBC claims to have become the servicer of the account," Doucet told HuffPost. "We're going to be interested to see what HSBC has to say about that."
The Washingtons' complaint doesn't say anything about the debt collectors using vulgar or abusive language, or reaching out to people close to the couple -- which means the situation as described, while bad, wasn't as unpleasant as the type of harrasment alleged by some other borrowers.
Some collectors have allegedly called people's relatives and former romantic partners in an effort to get their target on the line, while others have threatened debtors with jail time if they don't pay up. Consumer complaints about debt collectors jumped to an all-time high last year, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has since announced plans to regulate the collections industry more carefully.
The rise in debt-collector ugliness is believed to be linked to the growing number of home-based collection agencies, a tech-enabled boom that's made the field more competitive.