Editorial Policy

A collection agency can't be deceptive, abusive

Erica Sandberg

June 13, 2014

QHi Erica,

Can you shed some light on whether a third party (collection agency) can ask for an address or number of a consumer who is behind on his or her financial obligations? What rights does a consumer have? — Sahara

ADear Sahara,

Every profession comes with its own set of guidelines. Doctors vow to adhere to the Hippocratic Oath, mail carriers to be undeterred by gloom of night, and personal finance columnists to maintain journalistic standards. And debt collectors? They must conduct business in a way that's neither abusive nor deceptive, per the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.Ask Erica

This federal law stipulates what a third-party collector can do when trying to get a person to pay what he or she owes. The list of prohibited and required conduct is long, and everyone who is dealing with one of these companies would be wise to become familiar with its main points. It does include restrictions on how a collector may ask other people of your whereabouts. When communicating with people other than you, the collector:

  • Can state that they're confirming your location or request your mailing address or telephone number.
  • Cannot say they are a collector, mention the name of the agency they are working for (unless the person asks for it), discuss or reveal anything about your debt, or call again (unless the person requests further contact).

There are other important aspects of the act. For example, collectors are permitted to call you any day of the week, including holidays, but only between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. They may not harass you with constant phone calls (typically interpreted as more than once per day), insult you, or use foul or threatening language. They must be truthful, too. That means they can't say they're going to garnish your paycheck immediately (they have to sue you, win the case, then get approval first) or claim they're going to have you arrested or deported.

If the collector disregards the rules of the act, you should report the agency to the Federal Trade Commission. The commission may mediate via its complaint assistance program. You can also turn the tables on scofflaws by suing them for damages, either in state court or small claims. Sometimes even just telling them that you will do so inspires better behavior.

However, let's not forget that, as with everyone else, collectors have a job to do. If you owe the money and it's within the statute of limitations for collections (which varies by state law), they have a right to track you down and request the money. There are serious consequences for not paying, including judgments, wage attachments, liens, levies and credit damage.

Consumers also ought to abide by their own code of conduct. For example, make every effort to repay the original creditor. They lent you the money on good faith, and you have the moral obligation to fulfill your promise. If you can't and they sell the account to a collection agency, negotiate a settlement or payment plan.

Don't try to run and hide. Confront the situation head on and you'll never worry that some gruff-voiced guy will call one of your friends to ask how he can get in touch with you “regarding an important personal matter.” Even though he may not identity himself as a collector, most people will figure out what's up.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.