Gas suppliers began to call in debts with the help of debt collectors. In particular, Naftogaz. People are harassed by phone calls and threatened that debt cases will be sold to other firms. You can get dragged into the "terror" for either UAH 4000 or UAH 300 debt. On top of that, you may not have a debt, and end up in the collectors’ database due to the late transfer of meter readings.
Kosatka.Media became familiar with the official position of Naftogaz and talked to lawyers, who explained whether public utilities have the right to contact collectors; what to do if you receive intrusive calls, and how to protect yourself if debt collectors cross all boundaries.
(Spoiler: you can ignore collectors, but why and how).
"Terror" for a debt that did not exist
An indicative case happened to a resident of Kirovohrad region, Iryna, who accumulated debt for gas due to unscrupulous tenants. They did not pay the bills and did not transfer the meter readings to the regional gas company. Therefore, the gas supplier counted the consumed volumes according to average indicators – almost UAH 2,000 per month.
As a result, even after the payment of the debt “according to the counter” in June 2021, the debt figure of UAH 4100 was threateningly shown in the consumer's electronic account. And in May, the "telephone terror" began.
“The operator called me and on behalf of Naftogaz asked me to pay off the debt. I explained that it is paid, but we did not have time to transfer the meter readings to the regional gas company on time. This issue was solved by my son, so I asked them to contact him. After this conversation, almost every day they called from different numbers with the code +30800, but no one spoke. And then I received an SMS that my debt case could be sold to someone. These calls made me very nervous, I could not sleep normally, and shuddered every time the phone rings,” Iryna told Kosatka.Media.
SMS threatening to sell the debt deal. Photo: Kosatka.Media
Soon after talking to Iryna, the "supplier's representative" called her son as well.
“The man introduced as Viktor Petrovich said that he was calling “on the Naftogaz case”. He asked why we were not paying. When I explained that there is no debt, and everything depends on the correctness of the calculations, he said that he would call next month. At that moment I was sure that I spoke with the operator of the call centre of Naftogaz. But when I checked his phone number in Google, it turned out that it was Kyiv debt collectors company Inter-Risk. Also, my mother received an SMS from them threatening to sell the debt. Although the people who called us in every possible way hid that they were collectors,” said Iryna's son Dmytro.
According to people, the calls stopped only after they transferred the meter readings to the regional gas company next month, and the supplier recalculated the debt. Instead of a gas debt of 4100 hryvnias, there was an overpayment of almost 100 hryvnias.
This is not a separate case. In Facebook groups dedicated to utility and gas issues, people complain that debt collectors are pestering them for both UAH 300 and UAH 90. Even a discrepancy of 10 cubic meters of gas can become a reason for calls and SMS.
“Someone got a call from Naftogaz with a threat to sue for a debt? In this case: the debt arose due to incorrectly transmitted meter readings and for 1 month; the amount of the debt is UAH 300; the hotline of Naftogaz said that it is possible not to pay until the recalculation," wrote the user Vitalii in the Facebook group ‘Pay less for gas’.
Complaint about calls from debt collectors due to gas debt. Photo: Facebook/Pay less for gas
In such cases, Naftogaz advises contacting the regional gas company to clarify the volumes consumed.
“If you see incorrect volumes of consumed gas in your personal account, which we received from your regional gas company, please contact the local operator of the regional gas company. They will help to adjust the volume to the actually consumed. If regional gas company recalculates gas volumes, the information will be included in the bill as early as next month,” the company commented via their bot Taras Progaz.
Naftogaz's answer on gas debt. Photo: Facebook/Pay less for gas
Gas suppliers and collectors: what should consumers do?
Kosatka.Media talked with lawyers Lesia Melnyk and Ivan Liberman, who explained whether collectors can put forward any demands on debtors and how to communicate with them correctly.
Can suppliers involve debt collectors in debt collection?
Utility providers can indeed attract debt collectors. But there are two points.
First, only a court can call a consumer a debtor. Without its decision, there is no concept of "debt" or "debtor". Secondly, if the consumer's debt case was transferred to a collection company, then he must be notified of this.
“If a legal entity (a utility company, or a supplier) believes that someone is a debtor, then it applies to a court and enforcement proceedings are opened based on a writ of execution, and the Public Enforcement Service or a private contractor does this. In Ukraine, there is a practice of assigning rights on demand for debt collection. However, the debtor must be provided with the entire package of documents, certified copies by the company that lost the right to collect the debt, that it redeemed this debt and now has the right to collect it. Everything should be done exclusively in writing: no phone calls, no SMS (this is unacceptable). This is clearly stated in the Civil Procedure Code,” lawyer Ivan Liberman said.
If the debt collectors began to call the consumer, we are talking about the transfer of personal data (possibly illegal). Also, the debt collectors themselves can resell your debt to someone else in the manner prescribed by the Civil Code (assignment of the right of claim, factoring agreement).
“There are general rules, a person may not pay a debt to a new creditor if there is no evidence and he was not informed that his debt has been assigned,” lawyer Lesia Melnyk said.
What amount of debt is needed to involve debt collectors?
A debt of 1 hryvnia or more is enough. The only question is whether it will be profitable for the collectors to spend their time collecting debt from you (they usually work for a certain percentage of the debt amount).
Can they demand a debt during quarantine?
Quarantine in Ukraine has been extended until August 31. Until that time, the accrual of penalties and fines to the debtor, the termination of services and eviction from a house for late payment of utilities are prohibited. However, this does not exclude the obligation to pay the main debt.
How to protect yourself from debt collectors if there is no debt, or it is less than they say?
If a person who has no debt has become the object of the debt collectors' attention, he has the right to ask them to stop calling and sending SMS. Likewise, if there is a debt, he agrees with its size and is ready to pay it.
If the collection company does not listen to the request, and the person does not want to be disturbed, he has the right to turn to law enforcement officers.
“You can go to the police with two statements. The first one – If people have no debts at all – they write a statement under Art.189 of the Criminal Code (“Extortion”). Those who have debts and have a court decision that this person is a debtor, however, contrary to the established procedure (writ of execution, enforcement proceedings) calls and SMS are received, we assess this as pressure and threats – it is necessary to open criminal proceedings on Art.355 of the Criminal Code ("Compulsion to fulfil civil obligations"). Because no one can coerce a person except legally (authorities or a private contractor), and even then in writing and politely," Liberman explained.
Is it legal to transfer consumer personal data to debt collectors?
A call from the debt collectors means that the utility provider has transferred your personal data to them. If this possibility has not been previously agreed upon in the service agreement, the transfer of data is illegal.
The consumer can contact the utility provider with a request to whom he transferred personal data.
“You can demand a ban on the transfer of personal data. And if the collectors already have this data, you can demand to stop processing personal data if you are not given confirmation, based on which the debt collectors process personal data. Following the law on the protection of personal data, we consent to the processing of our personal data. If we didn’t give it, it’s illegal,” Melnyk explained.
With complaints about violation of legislation on the protection of personal data, you can contact the Ombudsman of the Verkhovna Rada for Human Rights and his representatives in the regions.
You can also complain to the police about a utility provider for disclosing personal data.
“If a person did not give his personal data to third parties, it is possible to open criminal proceedings for illegal use, dissemination of a person’s personal data (Article 182 of the Criminal Code). And indicate that “I assume that such and such a company has illegally given my personal data to unknown persons who have pressured me”. Criminal proceedings should be opened for illegal use and processing of personal data,” added lawyer Lieberman.
If there is a debt, how to deal with the debt collectors?
If the debt collectors own the debt legally, and the consumer does not deny the amount and is ready to pay, then, according to Ivan Liberman, the best option (even in the case of full agreement with the company) would be to offer the debt collectors to go to court together and conclude an amicable agreement or an agreement on deferred payment in the form of an amicable agreement.
“It is important that there was a decision with the official seal not of an arbitration court, but a state court that an amicable agreement was concluded between the claimants and the debtor and to register the terms of debt repayment and other conditions in it. Anything else, without a court decision, is a big risk,” Lieberman explained.
To conclude a contract, it is advisable to enlist the support of a lawyer. If there is no money for paid services, you can contact the free legal aid centre. There are such in all regions of Ukraine. More information about the criteria by which legal assistance can be obtained free of charge can be found on the website of the Ministry of Justice.
How to properly communicate with the debt collectors (and can they be ignored)?
According to lawyers, communicating with collectors by phone does not oblige you to anything.
“I am in favour of not talking a lot with them. I recommend warning them at the beginning of the conversation that you will listen to them, but your conversation is being recorded. They will become more correct and will not use any aggressive methods. Don't interrupt, be polite. And at the end, say: "Okay, I will wait for an official claim or a message from the court." If there is a debt, it needs to be paid off. But these calls will not have any legal consequences. This is just psychological pressure. Legal methods are when at least some kind of claim or letter comes in that the debt must be paid. And then, you are not obliged to answer it. You need to act already when a message comes from the court,” Lesia Melnyk explained.
Ivan Liberman agrees. He points out that telephone calls, according to the law, are a means of communication, but are not a tool with which one can communicate on the subject of a transaction or requirement. Accordingly, any claims made over the phone are void.
“This is a form of contact between individuals. When it comes to business relationships, phone calls are not regulated by law. Accordingly, it doesn't matter who appears to be - they have no power,” Liberman said.
What the debt collectors can and cannot do?
Under any conditions, the debt collectors must communicate with consumers in the correct form, they must not offend – this is a violation of the Constitution and the Civil Code, an infringement on honour and dignity.
If the debtor is threatened with violence, then the person has the right to contact the law enforcement agencies. Also, collectors do not have the right to represent themselves, for example, as law enforcement officers (threatening to open a criminal case), or publish data on debtors and the amount of their debt on the street, in social media, etc.
How to know if you are being sued for a debt
Utility providers may not involve the debt collectors to get consumers to pay but go directly to court. In some cases, the debtor may find out about this already when a decision is made not in his favour.
To prevent this from happening, anyone who has any debts can find out if his case has been applied to a court. Information about this is indicated on the Judicial Power of Ukraine website in the section ‘Status of consideration of cases’.
On this page, in the ‘Party to the case’ section, you need to indicate your last name, first name and patronymic, the region if necessary. After that, the portal will show all court cases (both completed and ongoing) in which your name is mentioned.
How to find information about the court cases with your participation on the Judicial Power of Ukraine website. Photo: court.gov.ua
At the same time, in the case of utility bills, their collection can occur without your knowledge.
“According to civil procedural law, there is also such a thing as an order - when a utility supplier can apply to the court for a court order. And the court, without even hearing the other party (the consumer), if they see that the service provider has provided the entire list of documents that are needed to establish that such a debt exists, issues a court order. This document must be sent to the consumer. After receiving it, the consumer can either agree with him and pay the debt, or appeal it in court if the person does not agree with the debt. In this case, the court order is cancelled. And only then the utility provider must prove the debt in court,” Liberman said.
How else utility companies can put pressure
One of the forms of forcing consumers to pay is sending letters on behalf of regional gas companies in the form of statements of claim, where the amount of the debt and the name of the defendant are indicated. But lawyers say that this is not a real document, but an attempt at psychological pressure.
“This is just a letter, this is not a statement of claim. The statement of claim must come from the court if there is such a case,” Melnyk explained.
Also, utility companies can threaten with the arrest of accounts, property or a ban on travel abroad. However, this is also manipulation, since only the public executive service can deal with such arrests. And public executive service can do this only when there is a court decision that has entered into legal force.
What are the nuances with debts payment
The consumer may settle with the supplier before he knows that his debt was bought by the collectors. In this case, the law is on the consumer's side.
“If a utility company sold the debt to a collection company, they no longer have anything to do with it. But, according to the law and in practice, the consumer is not obliged to pay the collection company at least until the moment when it does not confirm that it has bought this debt. And if you have information about the sale of your debt, but on the same day you paid it to the supplier, then it is considered paid off – because no one officially informed you, did not provide documents on the sale of debt. At the same time, you need to keep receipts for payment,” Lesia Melnyk said.
If there really is a debt and its amount is large, you need to agree on debt restructuring - payment in equal instalments over a certain period of time.
However, if the collectors act contrary to the law and try to "knock out" the debt bypassing court procedures, if you wish, you can start bureaucratic red tape with them and not pay anything.
“I know about a situation that has been going on for 9 years when collectors are trying to collect a debt from a person. It has already been assigned several times to different companies. But a person does everything successfully according to the procedure, as advised by lawyers, ignores any calls, SMS, messages on social networks. The person says that he is ready to repay the debt and sign all the necessary documents, but not in the mode of collection pressure, but exclusively in court,” Ivan Liberman gave an example.
Does the law control the collectors?
In July 2021, two important documents regulating the activities of collectors began to work in Ukraine and protect debtors from obscene language, threats, round-the-clock calls and moral pressure – Law No. 4241 and the Resolution of the NBU Board on the requirements for ethical behaviour of collectors.
Other norms of collectors' behavior are also spelled out there (for example, the collector is obliged to provide his name, the name of the company he represents, the legal basis for interaction)
However, unfortunately for the majority of Ukrainians, both of these documents are “not about communal services” - they protect only debtors on loans from unscrupulous collectors.
As it was explained to Kosatka.Media in the press service of the NBU, all the normative legal acts that the NBU adopted recently on regulating the work of collection companies were developed in pursuance of the requirements of the Law of Ukraine “On Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine Concerning Consumer Protection in the Regulation overdue debt ”(dated March 19, 2021 No. 1349-IX).
“This law applies to and regulates the relationship when collecting debt on consumer loans. The law does not apply to relations during the settlement of debts for utilities and other services,” the NBU said in response to a request.
They added that on the issue of settling debts for public services and other debts (except for debt on consumer loans), a separate draft law "On the protection of the rights and legitimate interests of debtors in the implementation of collection activities" is currently being processed in the Verkhovna Rada (registration No.2133 dated 12.09.2019 ). On December 12, 2019, it was adopted in the first reading and is now preparing for the second reading.
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