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Tackling your debts

Debt collectors, bailiffs and HCEOs: What’s the difference?

Posted 04 June 2014

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What should you do if you get a visit from a debt collector, bailiff or High Court Enforcement Officer? Read our guide to what to expect if one comes calling.

There can be few experiences more frightening than having a stranger turn up at your door saying they plan to remove some of your possessions in order to repay one of your debts. What makes this already difficult situation even more troubling is that you might not know the exact role this person is fulfilling, what their powers are … or what your rights are.

If you have stopped paying your debts and have not spoken to your lender or reached a new agreement with them, there’s a chance you could expect a visit like this. But anyone coming to your home and asking about your debts must clearly explain who they are and why they’re visiting.

So you know what to expect and what your rights are, read on to find out the key differences between a debt collector, bailiff and High Court Enforcement Officer.


Debt collector

A debt collector can be hired by your lender to attempt to collect what you owe. However, they are not appointed by the court and do not have the certification that allows them to work on the court’s behalf, which means they lack some of the legal powers of bailiffs.

If a debt collector comes to your door, remember:

• They must tell you exactly who they are, who they’re acting on behalf of and what you owe
• They cannot force entry into your home … if you ask them to leave they have to
• They cannot threaten or intimidate you
• They do not have the authority to take and sell your possessions
• They can’t tell anyone else about your debts, or threaten to tell anyone
• They shouldn’t visit your home if they have not given prior notice they plan to do this

Because they’re acting on behalf of your lender, you can talk to a debt collector about working out a new, more manageable repayment plan. If you don?t want to speak with a debt collector at all but have received notice that one will be visiting, you could speak to the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Money Advice Service to get advice and support … or contact professional debt advice and solutions provider such as Debt Advisory Centre for our advice. Of course you could also contact your lenders directly to discuss your situation.


Bailiff

A bailiff is appointed by the court, which means they have greater legal powers than debt collectors … but they are only able to collect certain debts. These include County Court Judgements (CCJs), unpaid council tax, VAT, income tax, national insurance and court fees, among others.

By law, a bailiff is able to search your home for possessions, remove non-essential items you own (and that don’t belong to your kids) from your property, and take your car away to cover the cost of your debt. However, if a bailiff does visit your home, remember:

• In the majority of cases, they can only enter peaceably and aren’t allowed to use force. This means they can ask to come in, or ask if they can use your phone or look around … but you have to give your permission
• They can also try and get in through an unlocked door or window, but they are not allowed to use force or work with a locksmith to gain access
• They cannot enter your home if your children answer the door and invite them in … only you can let them in
• If you DO let a bailiff in, they ARE entitled to enter by force the next time they visit, or to enter via an unlocked door or open window
• They can’t take away any possessions classed as essential
• They can’t take items belonging to your children
• They shouldn’t take away your car if you use it for your job, such as if you’re a taxi driver or delivery driver. They will also be unable to take it if you are not the outright owner; for example, if you got it through a hire-purchase agreement


High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs)

HCEOs were formerly known as sheriffs and act on behalf of the High Court. They have the power to enforce orders from the High Court like evictions; along with County Court Judgements for £600 or more that the lender has applied to have transferred to the High Court. They can only act in accordance with the rules of the court and have many of the same powers as bailiffs.

If an HCEO visits you, remember:

• They must not use violent or aggressive tactics
• They must respect your confidentiality
• They must act fairly in balancing your interests against those of the claimant, meaning that they shouldn’t take away your essential possessions
• They cannot take rented or hire-purchase vehicles
• They should not remove any items you rely on as part of your employment
• They cannot take away your children’s possessions or anything belonging to a third party
• They are able to provide you with help and advice on resolving your situation


How can I avoid a visit?

Perhaps the main way of avoiding a visit from one of the above is to resolve your debt problem. However, if you simply don’t have the money available to pay off everything you owe, there could still be some options available to you.

Most lenders simply want to speak to their borrowers so they can find out why they have stopped making their repayments and how the situation can be resolved. If they have not heard from you after sending letters and trying to phone you, they may send a debt collector round or apply for a CCJ as a last resort … and it usually is exactly that: a last resort.

Again, to prevent your debt problem from escalating, you have options. You can contact the lender directly, or contact the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Money Advice Service to get advice and support.

As well as this, you can seek out professional advice and support from debt experts. They can provide you with information on the debt solutions available, ranging from debt management plans to IVAs and bankruptcy.

By tackling your debt problem head on … either yourself or through a debt solution provider … you can open up a line of communication with your lenders, and reduce the likelihood of them sending someone to your home. Plus, you can start to take those important steps towards getting back in control of your finances.

by Sarah Symons

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To find out more about managing your money and getting free debt advice, visit Money Advice Service, an independent service set up to help people manage their money.