The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law that prohibits debt collectors from engaging in abusive or deceptive bill collection practices. Massachusetts also has its own laws that protects consumers from deceptive and abusive behavior by people and businesses collecting debts. This law, the Massachusetts Consumer Debt Collection Act (MCDCA), provides significant protections to consumers because it covers activity by both debt collectors and creditors (in most situations, the FDCPA only covers debt collectors). If you live in Massachusetts, both the FDCPA and the Massachusetts laws and regulations protect you.
This article explains the specific debt collection protections for people who live in Massachusetts.
The FDCPA protects consumers who owe money to merchants, credit card companies, or others for household debts. It prevents debt collection agencies from using intrusive or deceptive practices when collecting debts. If a bill collector violates the FDCPA, the debtor can bring a lawsuit seeking damages. (To learn more about the FDCPA, visit our Illegal Debt Collection Practices topic area.)
Keep in mind, however, that the FDCPA does not erase the debt, nor does it restrict the creditor’s options for taking legal action.
The Massachusetts Consumer Debt Collection Act
The MCDCA does several things.
Regulates debt collectors. The MCDCA requires that debt collectors be licensed and submit to other regulatins.
Prohibits certain collection activities. The MDDCA lists certain activites that neither collectors nor creditors can engage in. The Massachusetts Attorney General has also enacted regulations that provide debtors with a comprehensive set of protections against unfair practices by both creditors and professional debt collectors.
Definition of Debt Collector
Massachusetts regulates “debt collectors.” Under Massachusetts law, for purposes of complying with the debt collector regulations, the definition of debt collector includes anyone who has a business collecting debts or who regularly engages in collecting debts.
The following are not considered to be debt collectors:
- process servers
- people who only collect bills from tenants on behalf landlords or utility companies, and
- creditors attempting to collect their own debts.
Creditors who attempt to collect a debt that is owed directly to them by pretending to be another person or entity are considered debt collectors.
Regulation of Debt Collectors
In Massachusetts, debt collectors (as defined above) must be licensed, and once in business, must make their books and internal business records available to the Commissioner of Banks upon demand. The Commissioner may also revoke a license if the debt collector violates any debt collection regulation or commits any act that would have disqualified the collector from getting a license in the first place. Any debt collector who violates a regulation is subject to both criminal liability and civil fines.
Prohibited Collection Activities Under the MCDCA
Although most of the MCDCA governs debt collectors only, the MCDCA restrictions against improper collection techniques apply broadly to any “creditor.” The regulations define a creditor as “any person and his agents, servants, employees, or attorneys engaged in collecting a debt owed or alleged to be owed to him .”
The Act prevents a creditor from collecting a debt in an “unfair, deceptive or unreasonable manner” if the debtor is a person living in Massachusetts who has incurred the debt “primarily for personal, family or household purposes.” This means that any person or business seeking payment, as well as any collection agency or lawyer hired to collect a debt, cannot engage in any of the practices that the MCDCA prohibits.
The Massachusetts Act prohibits any collection activity that is “unfair, deceptive or unreasonable.” Specifically, debt collectors and creditors may not:
- report, or threaten to report, the existence of the debt to a third party unless the debtor authorizes the disclosure in writin (a creditor may, however, inform a credit agency, attorney, or a debt collector of the debt)
- communicate with the debtor directly if the debtor has an attorney and has informed the creditor of that fact
- harass or embarrass the debtor
- communicate with the debtor frequently or at an unreasonable hour
- send any written communication that imitates any form of judicial process from a court, government entity, or lawyer
- threaten violence
- use offensive language, or
- threaten any action that would fall outside of usual business practices.
Consumer Protection Regulations Under the MCDCA
The Massachusetts Attorney General has issued comprehensive regulations that forbid the following practices:
- threatening to sell or assign the debt to a third party that would allegedly subject the debtor to “harsh, vindictive or abusive collection attempts”
- representing that nonpayment of a debt will result in arrest or imprisonment of any debtor
- threatening to take any action which the creditor has no legal right to take, or
- threatening to seize or attach any property or wages without informing the debtor that a court order is required to take such action.
Restrictions on Telephone Communications
The Massachusetts regulations also provide detailed limitations on how a creditor may contact a debtor.
A creditor may not attempt to contact any other member of the debtor’s household. For all telephone communication, the caller must identify the creditor and the first and last name of the person making the call. In addition, a creditor may not pass on to the debtor any communication costs, such as long distance, text messaging, or download fees.
Creditors are restricted in where, when, and how often they may contact debtors. Unless responding to the debtor’s request, a creditor may only initiate a communication with any debtor via telephone, including live call, text messaging, or recorded message, twice a week at a contact number the debtor has identified as a personal or residential number. A creditor may attempt to contact a debtor at any other number no more than twice a month. All of these calls must be placed within normal waking hours, considered to be between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm, unless the debtor states otherwise.
A creditor may not call the debtor’s workplace if the debtor requests that the creditor not do so. An oral request is valid for ten days but must be followed up by a written request within seven days. The prohibition then remains in place unless the debtor cancels it.
Restrictions on In-Person Communications
A creditor or debt collector may visit the debtor’s home once every 30 days during normal waking hours, generally between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm. The creditor must remain outside the house unless the debtor invites him inside. The creditor may, however, come to the debtor’s residence to repossess any collateral or property owned by the creditor.
A creditor may not visit the debtor’s workplace unless the debtor requests such a visit, or the creditor is lawfully repossessing any collateral or property of the creditor. In addition, a creditor may not confront a debtor in a public place about the debt unless the conversation takes place in a courthouse, the office of the creditor or the creditor’s attorney, or in a private location where the communication will not be overheard.
Here's a summary of the Massachusetts communication restrictions:
Type of Contact
Telephonic communication to home or private number
Twice a week
Telephonic communication to any other number
Once a month
Telephonic communication to workplace
Prohibited after the creditor receives a written request to stop calls. An oral request stops workplace calls for ten days.
Personal visit to home
Once a month (no entry unless invited)
Personal visit to workplace
Personal communication anywhere else
Conversation must be in a private area where it cannot be overheard by a third party.
Enforcement of the MCDCA
If a creditor or debt collector violates the MCDCA, the debtor may sue in civil court but must give the creditor 30 days to make an offer of settlement. If the debtor refuses the offer, then the case can go to trial, at which time the debtor can seek up to treble damages and attorneys’ fees. If, however, the debtor prevails, but the court finds that the settlement offer was reasonable, then the debtor’s recovery is limited to that offer.
A collection agency can lose its license for violating the MCDCA.
Getting More Information
If you are struggling to pay your bills or have delinquent debts, visit our Debt Management area.