Whether you are falling a bit behind on your payments — or a bank or lender thinks you are — you may be receiving calls from a debt collector. No fun, right?
Well, there are things you can do to make sure you are more in control of what happens when you are on the receiving end of those calls. But before we go over them, let’s take a look at what a debt collector is and how certain laws may come into play.
What Is a Debt Collector or Collection Agency?
According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, passed by Congress to protect consumers like you, a debt collection is a person or company that regularly collects debts owed to others, typically when those debts are past due. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau points out, debt collectors include collection agencies or lawyers who do this as part of their business. Other companies may buy past-due debts and try to collect on them; they’re also referred to as debt collection companies or debt buyers.
What Is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was passed by Congress in 1977 to protect consumers by making some debt collection activities illegal. Some of those practices and activities which are illegal are described below, but before we get to those, let’s go over the definitions we’ll be using.
Understanding Debt Collection Terms
If you owe money or use a credit card, you are a consumer. Consumer also means your spouse, parent or guardian (if you are a minor), executor or administrator.
If you owe a debt, you owe money to a creditor for anything that you owe for personal, not business or commercial purposes.
If you ever fall behind in paying your creditor you may be contacted by a collector. A collector might be an individual, an attorney or a company, who ordinarily receives a payment from your creditor for collecting on your overdue payments. A third party collector collects debts owed to someone else — your creditor.
Can Collectors Contact You?
Yes. Collectors may contact you in person, by telephone, fax, mail, email or text. Collectors may not contact you at unusual times — specifically, they can’t call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. unless you specify it’s OK to do so.
In general, they may not contact you if you tell them you have an attorney and your attorney is handling your debt(s) for you.
Pro Tip: It is a good idea to keep track of all of the communication between you and the collector including their name, the date of the communication and what you discussed.
Can Collectors Contact My Family, Friends or Employer?
A collector may not contact anyone else you’re connected to in order to discuss the debt, unless you have an attorney and then the collector should be dealing with them. However, collectors may contact other people to find out where you live, work and what your phone number is.
A collector may not:
- Contact another person, including your employer, more than once — unless that person tells the collector it is okay to call again
- Tell anyone they contact that they are from a debt collection business
- Send a postcard or any type of document to anyone associated with you with any information or marks on the envelope that may communicate that the collector’s purpose is to collect a debt
- Contact your employer or co-workers for personal information about you.
- Contact you at work, if you request they don’t because your employer does not want you to receive those kinds of calls at work
It’s important to note that telling a collector “don’t call,” will not make the debt go away — it only prevents the collector from contacting you.
Can You Stop a Debt Collector From Contacting You?
Yes, but only if you write them a letter telling them to stop contacting you. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter. Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you about the debt again, unless they’re doing so to tell you that the collector or creditor is going to take a specific action to resolve the debt. For example, the creditor may decide to sue you to recover the debt, in which case they’re allowed to contact you again to give you this update.
Remember, sending a letter to the collector asking them not to contact you will not make the debt go away.
What If You Have an Attorney?
If you have an attorney helping settle your debt, tell the collector the name of your attorney. If you prefer your attorney handle the situation, you can tell the collector not to contact you again and only speak with your attorney. The collector is not legally allowed to contact you again after that, unless your attorney gives the collector permission to contact you.
What Should a Debt Collector Tell You About the Debt?
The collector has five days after the first contact with you to:
- Notify you in writing that you owe the creditor money
- Notify you of your right to dispute the debt
The written notice must include:
- Amount of the debt
- Name of the creditor
- Your right to dispute all or part of the debt, in writing, within 30 days of you receiving the notice
Note: The 30-day time frame starts running on the day you receive the notice, not the date of the letter or the postmark.
What if You Think You Don’t Owe Money to the Creditor?
If you think you don’t owe the creditor money, you must send the collector a letter stating that you believe you do not owe the money to the creditor. You must send this letter to the collector within 30 days of the date you receive the written notification of the debt.
You may tell the collector not to contact you until you receive proof of the debt. If you decide to do this, you must do it in writing.
Once you dispute the debt in writing, the collector must stop trying to collect money from you until you receive written proof that you really owe the debt from the collector. Proof should include a written document with your name, the name of the creditor and the amount you owe.
Note: Disputing the debt will not make it go away. The 30-day period is not a grace period — it is just an investigation period for the creditor to find proof that you do or don’t owe the debt.
What if the Amount Is Incorrect?
If you don’t think the amount of money the collector is trying to collect from you is not the correct amount, you must send the collector a letter stating you do not agree that you owe the amount of money they are asking you to pay. You must send this letter to the collector within 30 days of the date you receive the written notification of the debt.
If you negotiated with the creditor on partial payments, and then they ask for more, you may be frustrated — and rightfully so. However, the collector is allowed to demand larger installments in an accelerated time frame. Although this may be frustrating to you, it is not a violation of the law. The collector is allowed to negotiate its own terms, but the collector may not make any false statements or use misleading ways to collect a debt from you. So, if you suggest a partial payment knowing the creditor will accept a partial payment, the collector is not allowed to tell you “only full payment is acceptable.”
In general, collectors may not add interest, fees, expenses or charges of any kind to the original debt. However a collector may charge an additional amount if:
- The creditor included a condition for the fees or expenses in its agreement with you when you incurred the debt
- If it is allowed in the state where the contract was created
- If it is allowed in the state where a judgment was entered
What if You Owe Multiple Debts?
If you owe more than one debt and you make a payment to a collector, the collector must follow your instructions as to which debt the money should be applied to — it cannot apply it to any other debt.
What Happens During the 30-Day Dispute Period?
The 30-day dispute period is not a grace period. Until you dispute any or all of the debt in writing, within 30 days of receiving the notice of debt, (which, as we mentioned earlier, is not based on the postmark or the date of the letter) the collector can continue to try to collect the debt from you.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to dispute the debt, it’s a good idea to do so immediately. A collector may report the debt to a Consumer Reporting Agency, or send you notice of the debt the same time it sends you a summons to appear in court. If you receive a summons to appear in court after you disputed the debt in writing, you’ll still want to go to court. When you do, make sure you bring a copy of the letter you sent the collector disputing the debt. You can tell the judge the collector did not send you proof of the debt.
Other Restrictions on Debt Collectors
Collectors are required to tell you who they are, who they are collecting for ( name of the creditor) and the amount of the debt.
They may not:
- Use a false name
- Give you false contact information
- Tell you owe more than you really do
- Tell you they work for a credit reporting agency
- Say you are guilty of a crime
- Threaten to sue you if they don’t intend to sue you, or don’t expect the creditor to sue you
- Tell you they are an attorney if they aren’t
- Tell you they represent an attorney if they don’t
- Send you something that looks like an official court document if it is not
- Send you papers and tell you the papers are not legal forms if they really are legal forms
- Give false information to anyone about you
- Tell or threaten to tell anyone about your debt
- Say you will be arrested if you refuse to pay
- Harass you by threatening you with violence or harm
- Threaten you, any members of your family, co-workers or friends
- Threaten to or publish your name as someone who refuses to pay their debt, except to a Credit Reporting Agency
- Use obscene language
- Continue to contact you if you tell them not to contact you or instruct them to communicate with your attorney instead of you
- Deposit a post-dated check prematurely
- Threaten to take your property unless the creditor or collector can do so legally
- Collect an amount greater than the amount of your debt (Note: Some states allow an additional charge for collectors to be added to your debt.)
What to Do if You Think a Debt Collector Broke the Law?
You can report any problems you have to The Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and abusive business practices. To file a complaint, you can visit http://ftc.gov or call 1-877-FTC-HELP.
File a Complaint With Your State’s Office of Attorney General
You have the right to sue a collector in either a federal or state court within one year of the date the law was violated. If you win your case against the collector, you may recover damages. You may wish to contact an attorney to help you with this process. If you do not have an attorney or cannot afford one, you can contact your Local Legal Services provider, or the Lawyer Referral Service of the state, county or local bar association near your home.
Consumer Protection is different in every state. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act does not change the laws of any State Debt Collection Practice unless that law conflicts with any part of the Act. An attorney can advise you of your rights.
Find Out Where Your Credit Stands
Accounts in collections will affect your credit, which will impact any future loans or lines of credit you attempt to get. You can view a snapshot of your credit report for free on Credit.com to find out where your credit currently stands. This tool will break down your credit scores into sections and give you a grade for each. You’ll see, for example, how your payment history, debt and other factors are affecting your scores, and you’ll get recommendations for steps you may want to consider to address any problems. Checking your own credit reports and scores does not affect your credit scores in any way.