Can a debt collector leave a message on my answering machine?

Whether a debt collector can leave a message on your answering machine depends on whether others could hear the message and what the collector said.

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Question

A debt collector left a message on my answering machine? Is this legal?

Answer

It depends. If the machine is shared by others, or can be heard by others, then it's likely that the collector violated the law. If the machine is private, the collector may be able to leave a message, but must be very careful what it says. The federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) places limitations on how and when a debt collector can contact you, and what it says when it does. That includes leaving voice messages on your answering machine.

What the Debt Collector Must Include in its Communication

Under the FDCPA, a communication from a debt collector must meaningfully disclose the identity of the debt collector and provide what is called a “mini-Miranda” warning. The communication must:

  • identify the debt collector (name, employer, and telephone number)
  • state that the communication is an attempt to collect a debt, and
  • state that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.

While the FDCPA does not specifically discuss voice mail and answering machines (it was enacted in 1977 before voice mail and answering machines were common), many federal courts consider messages left on answering machines to be a “communication.”

Privacy Protections Under the FDCPA

That does not mean the debt collector's message on your machine is necessarily legal. This is because the FDCPA is also designed to protect your privacy. The FDCPA prohibits a debt collector from disclosing information about your debt to third parties. If your answering machine is shared with other people, then the communication may violate your rights under the FDCPA. If the debt collector fails to follow these requirements, or leaves misleading or harassing messages, then it may have violated other the parts of the FDCPA.

If the debt collector left the message on your cell phone or private voice mail, then its message was probably legal, so long as the debt collector provided meaningful disclosure and gave the mini-Miranda warning.

Your state's laws may provide you additional protection. For more information on what a debt collector can and cannot do, see the Illegal Debt Collection Practices topic.

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