Debt Collectors: What they Can & Cannot Do, Debtors Rights

If you use credit cards, owe money on a personal loan, or are paying a mortgage on a house, you technically become a “debtor”. And if you delay paying your creditors, or make a mistake in your accounts, you may be contacted by a “debt collector”.

You should know that in any of these situations, a law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) that deals with impartial debt collection requires debt collectors to treat you fairly and prohibits certain methods of debt collection. Of course, the law does not remove any legitimate debt you owe.

What kinds of debts are covered?

Personal, family, and household debts are covered by the act. This includes money owed for the purchase of a car, for medical care, or for account charges.

Who is considered a debt collector?

A debt collector is anyone who regularly collects debt owed to others. This includes attorneys who collect debts on a regular basis.

How can a debt collector contact you?

A debt collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, telegram, or fax. However, a debt collector cannot contact you during inconvenient hours or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector may also not contact you at work if he or she knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

Can you prevent a debt collector from contacting you?

You can prevent a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter to the collector telling him or her to stop. Once the debt collector receives your letter, he or she cannot contact you again except to tell you that there will be no more contacts or to notify you that the debt collector or creditor intends to take any specific action. Please keep in mind, however, that sending such a letter to a debt collector does not eliminate the legit debt if you do owe it. You may still be sued by the debt collector or your original creditor.

Can a debt collector contact anyone about your debt?

If you have an attorney, instead of contacting you, the debt collector should contact the attorney. If you do not have an attorney, a debt collector may contact other people, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Collectors are usually prohibited from contacting third parties more than once. In most cases, the collector cannot tell anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney that you owe money.

What should the debt collector tell you about the debt?

Within five days of being contacted, the debt collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money.

Can a debt collector continue to contact you if you believe you do not owe the money?

A debt collector cannot contact you if, within 30 days after you receive the written notice, you send the collection agency a letter stating that you do not owe the money. However, a collector may resume collection activities if they send you proof of the debt, such as a copy of the bill for the amount owed.

What types of debt collection practices are prohibited?

Harassment: Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third party they contact.

For example, debt collectors cannot:

  • Use threats of violence or harm;
  • Publish a list of consumers who refuse to pay their debts (except for a credit bureau);
  • Using obscene or profane language; or
  • Repeatedly using the telephone to annoy someone;
  • Debt collectors may not use any false or misleading statement when collecting a debt.

For example, debt collectors cannot:

  • Falsely suggest that they are lawyers or government representatives;
  • Falsely suggest that you have committed a crime;
  • Misrepresenting that they operate or work for a department or credit bureau;
  • Misrepresent the amount of your debt;
  • Indicate that the papers sent to you are legal forms when they are not; or
  • Indicate that the papers sent to you are not legal forms when they are

Debt collectors cannot state that either:

  • You will be arrested if you do not pay your debt;
  • Seize, garnish, seize, or sell your property or wages, unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so, and it is legal to do so; or
  • Actions, such as a lawsuit, will be taken against you when such action cannot legally be taken, or when they do not intend to take such action.

Debt collectors may not:

  • Give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit bureau;
  • Send you anything that looks like an official court or government agency document when it is not; or
  • Use a false name
  • Debt collectors cannot engage in unfair practices when trying to collect a debt.

For example, debt collectors cannot:

  • Collect any amount greater than the amount of your debt, unless your state law permits a similar charge;
  • Depositing a deferred check prematurely;
  • Use deception to make you accept collect calls or paid telegrams;
  • Take or threaten to take your property unless this can be done legally;
  • Contact you through postcards.

What control do you have over the payment of debts?

If you have more than one debt, any payment you make should be applied to the debt you indicate. A debt collector cannot apply a payment to any debt that you believe you do not owe.

What can you do if you believe a debt collector violated the law?

You have the right to sue a debt collector in state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you can recover money from the damages you suffered plus an additional amount. Court costs and attorney’s fees may also be recovered. A group of people can also sue a debt collector and recover money for damages, or one percent of the collector’s net worth, whichever is less.

Where can you report a debt collector for an alleged violation?

Report any problems you have with a debt collector to your state Attorney General’s office and to the Federal Trade Commission. Many states have their own debt collection laws, and your state Attorney General’s office can help you determine your rights.

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