Thousands of people receive calls, letters, or emails from debt collectors every day. Dealing with collectors can be embarrassing or intimidating. Sometimes, these calls even feel like harassment, but how do you know for sure, and what can you do about it? That’s where the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, comes in. Under the FDCPA, collectors must follow strict rules in how they treat clients. However, some things that might feel like harassment to you are not, and it’s important to tell the difference.
Debt collectors cannot threaten you, physically or otherwise. If you receive a call, letter, or email that contains a threat, you can be sure it’s either a scam or illegal behavior. Harassment also includes legal threats, especially any legal action that the collectors have no right to take. For example, a collector cannot tell you they will repossess your home or car if that isn’t a legal consequence of failure to pay, such as with student loans or credit card debt. Obscene language is also considered harassment, so it is a violation of the FDCPA. Generally, any time a collector lies to you, threatens you, or insults you, it is harassment.
Collectors are required to treat you respectfully, and that means respecting your time. Collectors cannot call you anytime before 8 am or after 9 pm in your time zone. They can call you more than once per day, as annoying as that might be, but they can’t cause your phone to dial continuously. It is illegal for collectors to call you at your place of work in some states, but it varies.
FDCPA guidelines also require collectors to treat any personal information carefully. In most cases, that means they cannot even mention debt to anyone without your permission. Check if your state is ‘spouse friendly’, which means collectors can discuss the debt or account with your spouse without your consent, and if the debtor is under the age of 18, parents are acceptable as well.
Sometimes the calls are so frustrating you might want them to stop altogether, and collectors must stop calling you if you ask. If you have more than one phone number, you might have to ask them to stop calling all of your numbers. If you request a cease and desist, the only thing collectors can send you is a billing statement. If you are filing for bankruptcy, you can provide collectors your attorney’s information, which may also stop calls.
Occasionally a collector might remind you of the consequences if you don’t make payments. That can be scary, but as long as those consequences were part of the agreement when you took on the debt, it’s entirely legal. Consequences like late fees, interest, garnishment of wages, and sometimes even repossession of property are a bargaining chip that collectors are more than happy to use. Still, they can’t always use them, so make sure to read the fine print.
Multiple calls in one day are acceptable, especially if they call about different accounts. For example, if you have more than one credit card, they can call you back to back about the two different cards. Holiday and weekend calls are also allowed; while annoying, don’t shoot the messenger who’s just doing their job!
Unfortunately, harassment isn’t the only thing to look out for as some collectors engage in what the FDCPA might refer to as ‘unfair practices.’ Unfair practices include any practice that would mislead a consumer, misrepresent the debt’s nature, or prevent you from validating the debt.
Common tactics used by scammers (or more unsavory collectors) include: falsifying documents, hiding where they are calling from, charging hidden fees, cashing post-dated payments early, or refusing to validate the debt.
Working with debt collectors can be challenging and even scary, and understanding regulations like the FDCPA can be overwhelming. Make sure you understand your state’s specific protections and legalities, and always validate the debt! Most collection agencies train their employees to follow the FDCPA and state guidelines, but you can best protect yourself by knowing your rights.