Editorial Policy

Know your rights with debt collectors

Dawn Papandrea

June 4, 2015

Getting in over your head with debt is frustrating enough — but then you have to deal with calls from debt collectors that can send your stress level through the roof each time the phone rings.

Regardless of how deep your financial troubles go, you are protected by state and federal law when it comes to how debt collectors can treat you.

First off, you should understand who the people are behind the debt collection notices and phone calls. “A debt collector is defined as someone who is not the original creditor,” explains David Reiss, professor of law and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, who also writes the REFinBlog. And, he says, what might start out as a legitimate debt collector contacting you on behalf of a creditor, can change over time since debt collection companies often sell their lists to other companies. Unfortunately, your contact information might end up with a fly-by-night operation that resorts to shady practices, such as trying to frighten you with threats and bullying.

The good news is that it's not as prevalent as it used to be, says Leslie Tayne, an attorney specializing in debt relief and author of “Life & Debt.” “Most collectors today have policies and training programs. In the olden days, it was more common for them to make threats about garnishing your wages or call you 15 times a day,” she says. She also points out that just because a creditor calls you, it doesn't mean they are breaking any rules. “You may not like their tone or attitude, but it doesn't mean they are violating the law.”

“You may not like [collectors'] tone or attitude, but it doesn't mean they are violating the law.”
–Leslie Tayne, debt relief attorney

Still, says Tayne, if you suspect you're being treated unfairly — and it does happen — you should educate yourself as to what is and isn't allowed. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) spells it out in great detail, but we've summarized the key points for you below.

Consider this your peek into the debt collection rulebook so that you can arm yourself against abusive tactics:

What debt collectors cannot do

  • Call you under a false identity. “That means they cannot say they are an attorney if they are not, or say they are from the sheriff's office if they are not,” says Reiss.
  • Discuss your debt with your employer, family members (other than your spouse), neighbors or publish your name on a list of people who owe money. “They can call a third party and leave a message for you, but they can't disclose the details of your debt,” says Tayne. Generally, they can only discuss your debt with you, your spouse and your attorney.
  • Call you at ridiculous hours, such as before 8 a.m. or past 9 p.m. They also cannot call you repeatedly in a single day.
  • Be abusive, threatening or vulgar. In other words, says Tayne, they cannot bully you by calling you a deadbeat or loser for not making payments, and they should never curse at you.
  • Make false threats that they will seize your property, drain your bank accounts or arrest you, says Reiss.

What debt collectors can do

  • Contact you in person, by mail, by phone or by fax between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. However, they can't contact you at work if they are told you can't get calls there. Also, if you write to them to stop calling you, they must comply, although they might respond by suing you, so think carefully before sending that letter.
  • Sue you in court. If they do, you'll have to appear, and it's in your best interest to hire an attorney. Ideally, you want to work something out before getting to this stage, says Reiss, because court and attorney costs can pile up.
  • Report you to the credit agencies. “Debt collectors can report your default to the credit bureaus,” says Reiss. This negative item will remain on your report for seven years, and your credit score will take a hit.

What you can do

If you think debt collectors are crossing the line, you do have options for recourse, says Reiss. “First, build up a paper record as this can help you later on.” That includes taking notes on every conversation you have, with dates, times and who you spoke to.

You could also try sending a cease-and-desist letter, or asking a lawyer to do so on your behalf, says Reiss. “They may be afraid and back off if a lawyer is involved,” he says.

Tayne finds that such letters aren't always effective for more hostile debt collectors. “If they're really out of line, file a lawsuit in small claims court,” she says.

You should also report shady collectors to your state attorney general's office as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, say Reiss and Tayne.

If you do end up making a payment to a debt collector, request documentation that states your debt is paid, and then be sure that the payment is reflected on your credit reports within 90 days. You can get your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Ideally, you don't ever want to be in a situation in which debt collectors are tasked with contacting you, and incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to pay them. But if you do end up in that situation, knowing your rights is your best defense. Says Reiss, “Debt collectors do not want consumers to invoke their rights under the FDCPA because the act can severely limit what they can do.”