Debt collectors have a reputation—and in some cases, a well-deserved one—for being unpleasant and even threatening when trying to get debtors to pay. Even though the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted to limit debt collectors’ behavior and actions, some collectors continue to ignore the law.
Understanding the boundaries of debt collectors will help you to better deal with them. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
False or Misleading Representations
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from pretending to work for any government agency, including law enforcement.
A recent documented case involved the sentencing of debt collectors for allegedly accusing people of fraud, stating they would be arrested and face criminal charges for not repaying debts. The collectors also allegedly misrepresented themselves as contract workers for federal and state government agencies, including the Department of Justice and the U.S. Marshals.
Federal debt collection law prohibits collectors from falsely claiming you’ve committed a crime or will be arrested if you don’t repay the money they claim you owe. Collection agencies cannot issue arrest warrants or have you put in jail. Failing to repay a legitimate credit card debt, mortgage, car loan or medical bill won’t get you a jail sentence.
However, if you do receive a legitimate court order to appear in court related to a debt you allegedly owe, and don’t show up, the judge could issue a warrant for your arrest. Additionally, if you fail to pay a court fine related to your debt—or refuse to pay taxes or child support—you could go to jail.
Publicizing Your Debt
Debt collectors are not allowed to contact you by postcard, publish the names of debtors who refuse to pay them or talk to anyone other than you, your spouse or your attorney about your debt. Additionally, debt collectors should not try to publicly shame you into paying money that you may or may not owe.
Debt collectors are allowed, however, to contact third parties to try to track you down and ask for your address, home phone number and place of employment – although they’re not generally allowed to contact such people more than once.
Attempting to Collect Debt You Don’t Owe
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires collectors to send you a written notice stating how much you owe within five days after first contacting you, including who they claim you owe and how to make your payment.
In some instances, debt collectors may rely on incorrect information when attempting to collect on an unpaid debt. For example, the agency might be trying to collect a debt from you that was discharged in bankruptcy or that belongs to someone else with an identical or similar name. If you are uncertain about a debt owed, send a letter to the collector via certified mail with a return receipt requesting more information. Meanwhile, do not assume any responsibility for the debt.
Debt collectors cannot:
- Threaten you with violence or harm
- Use obscene or profane language
- Call you repeatedly
- Call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. without your permission
- Call you at work, if you disallow it in writing
- Contact you at all—if you tell the collector, in writing, to stop contacting you altogether or to contact only your attorney
Debt collectors may contact you to let you know they will no longer be contacting you, or to inform you that a lawsuit has been filed against you.
And here’s a special note to people wondering how to pay of credit cards or who need credit card help: In-house debt collectors are not subject to the FDCPA. Consequently, if you are delinquent on your Chase credit card bill and Chase calls you directly, they are not required to follow the rules described in the FDCPA. Only when a collection agency or debt buyer is involved does FDCPA apply. Also, if you receive a court summons for a lawsuit regarding your debt, don’t ignore it—it might be legitimate. When in doubt, be sure to check out the court contact information to ensure the summons is real and not a forgery.
The Bottom Line
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was enacted to protect your rights as a consumer—so don’t allow a debt collector to ever intimidate or harass you!
You can contact one of our Consultants at 1-800-495-4069 to learn more about resolving burdensome credit card debt, debt settlement, debt management and other debt relief programs.