Home > Managing Debt > What Can Debt Collectors Say On Answering Machines?

Comments 88 Comments
Advertiser Disclosure


Talk about an uncomfortable situation. A reader recently contacted us about a message she found on her answering machine.  The recorded message was regarding a collection for her father who does not live with her:

Dear Gerri,

I’m very concerned that a debt collector may have broken the law.  Long story short, I recently received this message from a debt collection company. Play to hear voice mail message »

I’m concerned because this message wasn’t for me—it was actually for my father, who lives in another state. As far as I know, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors are only allowed to contact a relative or neighbor once in attempt to reach the debtor… but I was under the impression that legally, debt collectors are not allowed to share “why” they’re calling (in an attempt to collect a debt) unless they are speaking to the actual account holder, right?  My father would be mortified if he knew that I knew he were having financial problems. Did this collector break the law?

— Cindy (A Concerned Family Member)

Cindy raises an important question. When debt collectors leave messages for debtors on answering machines, how much can they say? The answer is not as clear as you might think it would be.

“The law on debt collection voice mails is unclear, as the most current case regarding the issue is on appeal” Sonya Smith-Valentine, an attorney with Valentine Legal Group, LLC, points out.

I’ll get to that case in a moment, but let me back up and describe the problem first. A federal consumer protection law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), describes practices debt collectors can’t engage in when trying to collect debts. But it includes no specific instructions for voice mail messages.

“You have to go back to the FDCPA when it was first promulgated,” says Joel D. Leiderman, Senior Associate Attorney at the collection law firm of Forster & Garbus LLP in Commack, NY. “Most people didn’t even have answering machines then. These are issues that weren’t contemplated.”

The FDCPA does say that a debt collector is breaking that law if it fails to disclose, in its initial communication with the consumer (which could be in writing or orally) “that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” In addition, in subsequent communications, the debt collector must disclose that the communication is from a debt collector.

Ok, so that seems simple enough. The debt collector should provide that information when leaving a message, right?

Not so fast.

If the debt collector knows he is only leaving a message for the debtor, it would seem to be fairly straightforward. But what if that message might be heard by someone else, as in Cindy’s case?

The FDCPA also gives debtors a degree of privacy. It prohibits debt collectors from communicating with someone other than the debtor except to locate the debtor (exceptions include the debtor’s attorney, a cosigner or spouse). In those cases, the collector can identify himself, state that he is confirming or correcting location information concerning the consumer, and, only if expressly requested, identify his employer. But he cannot state that the consumer he’s trying to locate owes any debt; and he generally can’t communicate with such person more than once.

Next: Collection Calls and Legal Technicalities »

Pages: 1 2

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Credit.com receives compensation for the financial products and services advertised on this site if our users apply for and sign up for any of them. Compensation is not a factor in the substantive evaluation of any product.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team