Almost everyone has been hassled by a debt collector. Nearly one in three consumers surveyed in the U.S. say they were contacted by at least one creditor or debt collector in the last year alone.
Some people receive hostile phone calls, get calls at work or late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes debt collectors call their friends or family. People have been screamed at and threatened by debt collectors. If you are a target for this kind of harassment, how can you make it stop?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law that forbids certain debt collection tactics. Below, we’ll explain what debt collectors are and are not allowed to do under the law. You’ll also learn about the FDCPA attorneys who can help you stop the harassment.
THE FDCPA APPLIES ONLY TO DEBT COLLECTORS
The law defines a “debt collector” as a person or a business that collects debts on behalf of other parties or whose primary purpose is collecting debts owed to another.
The FDCPA applies exclusively to actual, full-time debt collectors – not to “original” creditors who are attempting to collect their own debts, unless the original creditor is trying to collect that debt under another name.
Debt buyers – businesses that buy debts and either resell or attempt to collect those debts – are also subject to the FDCPA if the debt buyer’s principal business activity is debt collection.
What many people don’t know is that debt collection law firms are also considered debt collectors under the FDCPA.
HOW ARE DEBT COLLECTORS RESTRICTED BY LAW?
The federal FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from engaging in a variety of deceptive and abusive tactics. Collection agencies, for example, may not communicate with third parties regarding your debt, except for:
- the original creditor
- a credit reporting agency
- your spouse, your parents if you’re under 18, and any co-debtors
- an attorney that represents you
WHEN IS IT ILLEGAL FOR A DEBT COLLECTOR TO CONTACT YOU?
When a debt collector learns that you’re represented by an attorney for the debt, the debt collector may no longer contact you and must deal exclusively with your attorney instead.
The only other exception to the FDCPA ban on third-party contacts is for the exclusive purpose of determining your whereabouts. When contacting third parties regarding your location, debt collectors:
- must give their names and state that they are seeking details about your whereabouts
- cannot say that you owe a debt
- cannot send you a postcard or indicate on an envelope that they are collecting a debt
Additionally, debt collectors are forbidden to contact any third party more than once unless they:
- have been asked to by that party
- believe and have evidence that they received inaccurate information from that party
HOW MAY A DEBT COLLECTOR CONTACT YOU LEGALLY?
When a debt collector first contacts you, that collector must inform you that a debt collection effort is being made and that any details you provide – anything you say – will be used to collect the debt. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prevents a debt collector from contacting you:
- at an inconvenient or unusual place or time, which generally means before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. (although if you work nights, a call at noon may also inconvenience you)
- if the debt collector knows that an attorney is representing you
- at your job if the debt collector knows that your workplace forbids receiving such calls at work, or you told the debt collector not to call you at work
WHAT OTHER COLLECTION PRACTICES ARE ILLEGAL?
Generally speaking, a debt collector cannot engage in practices that abuse, harass, or oppress consumers, including the use or threat of violence against you, someone else, your property or reputation, or someone else’s property or reputation.
A debt collector cannot use abusive or obscene language; may not advertise that your debt is for sale or publicize your name in print or online as someone who does not pay debts; may not call you repetitively; and may not call you and fail or refuse to identify themselves as a debt collector. FDCPA attorneys represent the victims of these illegal practices.
You do not have to tolerate harassment. If a debt collector threatens you on the phone or uses abusive language, hang up.
Debt collectors are still allowed to send you emails and text messages. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was written forty years ago and doesn’t directly address digital communications.
Congress and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are currently considering how the law should deal with emails and text messages sent by debt collectors.
WHEN DEBT COLLECTORS MAKE FALSE CLAIMS
The FDCPA also makes it illegal for a debt collector to lie in order to collect debts or information about you. Specifically, debt collectors may not:
- try to collect more than you owe, or report a different amount on your credit report
- fail to note as “disputed” on your credit report if you tell them you don’t owe the amount they’re trying to collect
- say that they are with law enforcement or suggest a connection to the federal, state, or local government (except for child support collectors who really are state employees)
- falsely represent how much you owe
- claim to be a lawyer or representing a lawyer, or send you something that appears to be from a court or a lawyer
- falsely allege that you have broken the law or claim that you will be jailed or that your assets will be seized
- threaten to take any action, legal or illegal, that will not or cannot happen
- use a phony company name or claim to work for a credit bureau, unless the collection agency and credit bureau are part of the same business
WHAT ELSE SHOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT DEBT COLLECTION TACTICS?
The FDCPA also prevents debt collectors and collection agencies from using these unfair debt collection tactics:
- adding interest, charges, or fees that are not authorized by the initial agreement or by state law
- accepting a check postdated more than five days, unless you are notified three to ten days prior to depositing the check
- depositing a postdated check before the check’s date
IF YOU ARE HARASSED BY A DEBT COLLECTOR
When a debt collector has violated your rights under the FDCPA, you can sue for damages. You can always learn more about consumer protection laws and your rights by speaking to an experienced FDCPA attorney.