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Being in debt is nerve-wracking enough without getting telephone calls at work. It’s bad enough that you’re in debt, but you could get in trouble at your office, the place you need to be to get out of debt. Can a debt collector call you at work? What about other debt collection laws and your consumer rights?
The good news? You aren’t defenseless in situations like this. That’s thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That’s thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. This federal law sets down a specific set of rules that third-party debt collectors must follow when contacting you about a debt that was sent to collections. Debts covered under this law include auto loans, medical bills and credit card bills.
To help you understand your debt collection laws and your debt collection rights, here are 10 important rules a debt collector has to follow when it contacts you about an unpaid bill.
Debt collectors can call you at work. But, if you’d rather they don’t, you can tell them not to and they have to stop.
If a debt collector calls you at work and your boss picks up, the debt collector isn’t allowed to call your office again unless your boss gives them permission to do so.
To get them to stop contacting you at all, you need to send a written letter telling them not to contact you. Or get your boss to tell them not to call you at work.
After this point, a debt collector can only call to inform you that your creditor is suing you or taking other action against you.
Debt collectors can legally call you at a reasonable time. Legally this varies by state, but most often, this means between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. in your local time zone. If you work during these hours and haven’t taken steps to stop them, debt collectors can call your job. Also, if you ask them to call during this time, they can.
Debt collectors can legally contact you by email, fax, mobile number or regular mail. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act doesn’t specify any restrictions about receiving text messages, because text messages didn’t exist when the act was passed in 1977.
If a collector contacts you outside any of these methods or at an unreasonable hour, keep a record of each contact, especially if it happens frequently.
Also, debt collectors can’t call you numerous times a day. Doing so is considered a form of harassment by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and is explicitly not allowed.
It’s also within your debt collection rights to inform a collection agency that you disagree with what they’re claiming you owe—and once you’ve done so, in writing, they’re required to stop contacting you while the debt is verified.
A debt collector can call your boss, your friends and your family looking for you. But, a debt collector can’t tell them that they’re calling to collect debts, nor can they call that person a second time. Their interaction is legally limited to a single phone call. It’s also limited to finding out your address, your phone number and where you work. In most cases, a debt collector may not tell anyone other than you, your spouse or your attorney that you owe money.
Debt collectors are also not allowed to threaten you. Threatening you is considered harassment and is strictly prohibited by the FTC. They can’t threaten to sue you for not paying unless they really intend to. They can’t subject you to threats of violence. They can’t threaten to take your property or have you arrested. And they can’t threaten to publish any information about your debt except to a credit reporting agency.
A debt collector can’t ask you for more money than you actually owe. When the debt collector sends you the written debt validation notice, the notice has to include the specific amount the collector claims you owe. A debt collector can’t legally say that you owe more.
If you suspect the amount of money you’re asked to pay isn’t the correct amount, send a letter to the debt collection agency notifying it of this within 30 days. The agency then has to verify the debt in writing. It can’t contact you again until it does.
You can dispute the debt after 30 days, but the debt collector can keep calling because you missed the 30-day deadline.
If you dispute the debt because you don’t think you owe the money or the amount is incorrect, the debt collector has to stop calling you while your claim is investigated. And debt collectors have to verify any debt you dispute in writing prior to renewing collection calls. Once a debt collector sends you verification of the debt, collection activities—and calls, emails and more—can start up again.
A debt collector has to send you a written statement outlining the specifics of your debt that is in collection. Within five days of contacting you, a debt collector must send you this written notice with the amount of money you owe and the name of the original creditor. This notice also must explain what actions to take if you believe you don’t owe the money.
Simply informing a debt collector that you’re aware of the laws and your rights can curb collection behavior.
If a debt collector breaks any laws when contacting you about a debt, you can—and should—report the collector to your state attorney general’s office, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and/or the Federal Trade Commission.
Many states have their own collection laws, and a debt collector who violates the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act may be violating state collection laws as well. Your state attorney general’s office can inform you of additional local rights you may have.
The first person who must stand up for your debt collection rights is you. Don’t let a debt collector intimidate or harass you with illegal tactics. Dealing with a debt collector who plays by the rules can be a stressful experience too. If you need assistance or advice, consider contacting an attorney.
The Consumer Protection website from the Federal Citizen Information Center has links to state and local consumer protection agencies, including state attorney general offices.
Your debt collection rights include that the debt collection agency must contact your attorney, once you’ve hired one. So if you have an attorney handle your debt, you can tell your debt collector to speak with him/her. After that, you shouldn’t have to worry about a debt collector calling you again. The only exception to this is if your attorney gives them permission to call you again.
LawHelp.org connects low- and moderate-income Americans with free legal aid programs in their communities. And the American Bar Association has a consumer guide that provides a directory of legal resources available in each state. You may also be able to find an attorney with debt collection experience through the National Association of Consumer Advocates—a nonprofit association of attorneys and consumer advocates that has members throughout the country.
A debt attorney can negotiate deals with whoever owns your debt, and he/she can handle any lawsuit brought against you. In worst case scenarios, a debt attorney is the one who files for bankruptcy for you.
If you have a debt in collections, it’s a good idea to see how it’s affecting your credit even if you pay the debt. It’s easy and free to do to check your credit. You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit reports from each of the three main credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion—annually. You can access them by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.
As you pay off your debts, you can see how it’s impacting your credit by taking a look at your free Experian credit score and free credit report card on Credit.com. Your score and report card give you insight into each of the five factors that make up your scores—payment history, debt usage, variety of accounts, age of credit accounts and credit inquiries.
There are legal limits on how debt collectors are allowed to interact with you and that protect you from deceptive practices. You can invoke these limits to stop annoying calls and other forms of contact.
Although stopping contact won’t cancel your debt, not getting calls can take a lot of pressure off of you. You should be in control of when you’ll pay your debt and when you have to stop and worry about it.
To learn more about dealing with debt and how it can affect your life and your credit, check out the Debt Learning Center on Credit.com.
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