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Debt Collectors: What They Can and Can’t Do

Getting contacted by a debt collector can be an intimidating—even frightening—event. Debt collectors often use aggressive tactics to get people to pay up—and these tactics are sometimes located on the shady side of the legality line. The Federal Trade Commission attempts to prevent this through the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which forbids abusive, unfair, or deceptive debt collection practices. But what’s allowed—and what’s not? Here’s an overview.

They can’t contact you any place or time they want

Debt collectors, under the Act, are not allowed to call you late at night (after 9PM) or early in the morning (before 8 AM)—not unless you’ve agreed to allow them. They are also not allowed to call you at work if you tell them—either in writing or orally—that your workplace doesn’t allow you to receive calls there.

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Senior Looking at Bills

It’s not easy defending yourself when debt collectors try to coerce you into paying—and many of them can be extremely aggressive.

 

 

 

 

They can contact third parties—but only under certain circumstances

Debt collectors have to go through your attorney, not you, if you’re using one. If you haven’t hired an attorney, the debt collector can contact other people to find out where you work, your home address, or your phone number—but not more than once, and they are not allowed to discuss your debt with any third party other than a spouse or attorney.

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They must send you a notice

It’s a “validation notice,” and they have to send it to you within five days of their first contact. It should tell you how much money you owe, who you owe it to, and what to do if you don’t believe you owe this money.

If you tell them you don’t think you owe the money, they can’t contact you

You have to tell them in writing, within thirty days after receiving your validation notice. After that, the debt collector isn’t supposed to contact you again. However, they can start up again if they send you written proof that you do in fact owe the money—something like a copy of a bill or invoice.

They can’t harass you

Debt collectors are definitely not allowed to threaten you with violence; publish your name as someone who doesn’t pay their debts; use foul language with you; or call you repeatedly in order to annoy or intimidate you.

They can’t lie

Some unscrupulous debt collectors may claim that they are lawyers or representatives of the government—or tell you that you’ve committed a crime when you haven’t. They can’t claim that they work for a credit reporting company, lie about the amount of money you owe, or tell you that the papers they’re sending you are legal forms when they are not—or vice versa. They also can’t claim you’ll be arrested to seize or garnish your wages or property if you don’t pay.

They can’t indulge in unfair practices.

These include charging you extra fees on top of what you owe; cash a post-dated check before the date; or seizing your property illegally.

They can’t apply a payment to a debt you didn’t specify

If you owe more than one debt, you can specify which payments go to which debts—and the collector has to honor that. They also can’t put your payment toward a debt that you’re contesting.

They can’t garnish your bank account unless you lost in court

This is usually not legal unless there is a court order—you have to go to court, and the judge has to rule in favor of the debt collector. In this case, the judge may allow the creditor to take out a garnishment order against you, and your bank will be directed to allow the money to be taken out directly from your bank account.

You can also get your wages garnished—meaning your employer will take money out of your paycheck to pay your debts. This can also only happen if a judge orders it. If you ignore a lawsuit summons from a creditor, however, you won’t have the chance to defend yourself—and the judge may be more likely to rule in the creditor’s favor.

If a debt collector has taken any actions forbidden under law, you do have the right to sue—but you have to do it within a year of the violation. If you can prove you’ve suffered damages, the judge may require the collector to reimburse you. In fact, the judge can order the collector to reimburse you up to $1,000—even if you didn’t prove you suffered monetarily as a result of their misbehavior.

It’s not easy defending yourself when debt collectors try to coerce you into paying—and many of them can be extremely aggressive. However, it helps to know your rights. Be aware of any possible violations—including lying, aggressive language, intimidation tactics, and contact at inappropriate times or places. It’s possible you could sue—and collect damages.