5 things a debt collector can't legally do

Lesson #19: 5 things a debt collector can’t legally do

Debt collectors are not fun to deal with. They may have a naturally intimidating presence, or may simply remind us of our failure when it comes to our credit. While debt collectors do have the right to contact you and ask you to pay your outstanding debt, there are a several important things they can not do under any circumstance.
You have the right to report debt collectors who do any of these forbidden actions, and can even pursue legal action if you wish.

Understanding the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)

The FDCPA is a law that was originally passed in 1977 to protect consumers from unfair debt collection practices. It covers all the consumer’s basic rights, and sets up guidelines to prevent debt collectors from using unfair, deceptive, or downright abusive practices to get you to pay your debts.
While the document sets out the full guidelines, here are 5 of the most important things a debt collector can’t do.

1. A Debt Collector Can’t Harass You

The definition of harassment here may include things such as:
  • Using obscene or crude language
  • Calling repeatedly to annoy you
  • Calling and hanging up when you answer
  • Threatening you with violence
  • Threatening you with shame, such as publishing your name on a “blacklist” of people who do not pay their debts
  • Threatening you with arrest
  • Threatening you with deportation
That said, simply calling you and asking that you pay your debt is not harassment. They can also report information to the credit bureaus, and may tell you they are doing so.

2. A Debt Collector Can’t Contact You at Inconvenient Times

Debt collectors cannot contact you at a time you have decided is inconvenient. There are some general guidelines as well. In general, they cannot contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you explicitly agree or request they do so.
Debt collectors may use language to their advantage here, getting you to agree by starting out with lines like “Hey, _____, Is this a good time?”
Additionally, a debt collector cannot contact you at work if you tell them it is inconvenient or not allowed. If a debt collector ever calls you at work, let them know personal calls are not allowed, and they must stop contacting you there.
If you have a lawyer representing you about the debt, tell the debt collector this as well. If this is the case, the debt collector has to stop contacting you and work through your lawyer.

3. A Debt Collector Can’t Use Unfair Tactics or Practices Against You

Unfair practices may include anything that is not agreed upon or puts you at a disadvantage or potentially shameful position, such as:
  • Depositing a post-dated check from you earlier than the date agreed upon
  • Trying to collect fees on top of the amount of your debt that are not authorized by your debt agreement
  • Sending you mail with any language or symbol that indicates the mail is from a debt collector, other than their address. An extreme example would be putting a stamp that says “past due debt” on the outside of the envelope.

4. A Debt Collector Can’t Mislead You

Debt collectors are also required to be rather upfront when contacting you. They cannot mislead you in any way, including:
  • Calling without telling you who they are or why they are calling
  • Making false claims about how much money you owe
  • Making false claims about who they are, such as stating they are a lawyer, government agent, or credit reporting company
Many states also require the debt collector to be licensed. If you are doubtful the person calling you works on behalf of a licensed debt collector, ask for their full name and information, such as company name, number, address, and license number. They are required to give you that information, and a licensed debt collector will happily do so.

5. A Debt Collector Can’t Contact Other People About Your Debt

There are only three people a debt collector can contact about your debt:
  • You
  • Your spouse
  • Your lawyer
If they are already in contact with you, they may not contact any other third party, such as work colleagues or your boss. If they do not have a way to contact you, they may try to contact these third parties to verify your information. Once they have contacted you, however, they must stop contacting all third parties.

Final Thought

While debt collectors are allowed to ask you to pay your debt, they are not allowed to harass or mislead you in any way. You can submit complaints about debt collectors to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or you may contact your state’s Attorney General. Most complaints are resolved within about 60 days.
Understanding the important things a debt collector cannot do equips you with the knowledge you need to properly deal with them and report any signs of harassment. For cases of severe harassment, it may be a good idea to contact a lawyer that specializes in debt collections.
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