The Washington collection agency law regulates debt collectors in the state of Washington and provides some protection if a debt collector is trying to collect from you. It requires debt collectors to be licensed and bonded, prohibits unfair and deceptive actions, regulates how a collector can communicate with you, and more. It is similar to the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, if a debt collector violates the Washington act, you can use in state court.
The Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law regulating debt collectors’ activities in all states. Among other things, the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive or abusive practices, governs the time and manner in which debt collectors contact you, and requires that debt collectors honor your requests not to contact you at certain places or times.
The FDCPA does not apply to every person or company attempting to collect a debt, however. For example, it does not apply when a creditor attempts to collect a debt on its own behalf.
(To learn more about the protections the FDCPA offers, visit our Illegal Debt Collection Practices topic area.)
The Washington Collection Agencies Law
In addition to the FDCPA, the Washington State collection agency law also regulates debt collectors’ activities when they attempt to collect debts from Washington residents.
Debt Collectors Must Be Licensed in Washington
Washington’s collection agency law requires debt collectors to obtain a license from the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) and post a bond before attempting to collect a debt. They must renew their licenses yearly. Out-of-state debt collectors must also obtain a license before attempting to collect from Washington residents.
You can check to see whether a debt collector is licensed at www.dol.wa.gov. If the DOL suspects that a debt collector is unlicensed it may investigate. It routinely fines unlicensed debt collectors.
Who Is a Debt Collector Under Washington Law?
The definition of a debt collector under the Washington collection agency law is similar to the FDCPA’s definition. Those who are in the business of collecting debts on others’ behalf are covered, but original creditors are not. The following do not need to be licensed.
Original creditors. Original creditors and other creditors who do not regularly collect debts are not required to be licensed in Washington. For example, a small business does not need to comply with the Washington collection agency law when the its owner contacts you regarding a debt (assuming it is not in the debt collection business, of course). Similarly, financial institutions, realtors, and your landlord do not need to be licensed.
(To learn more about the difference between debt collectors and original creditors, review What Is the Difference Between a Debt Collector and a Creditor.)
Billing services. Billing services that simply send statements or manage payments do not need to be licensed. One notable example is a company hired by a homeowners’ association to send you statements, assess late fees, and take payments. Other property management companies are exempt as well.
Law firms, with some exceptions. Lawyers and law firms do not need to be licensed as long as they are not in the regular business of collecting debts. Some law firms specialize in debt collection, however, so they do need to obtain a debt collector license.
Prohibited Collection Activities Under Washington Law
Licensed debt collectors must comply with the regulations contained in the Washington collection agency law. As you read this section, keep in mind that debt collectors must comply with both Washington’s regulations and the FDCPA’s regulations, but this section is limited to Washington law.
Must provide specific information upon first contact. The first time a debt collector sends you a letter, notice, form, or anything else, its must include the following:
- the debt collector’s business address and licensee name
- the name of the original creditor (if the debt collector knows who it is) as well as your original account number (which can be redacted)
- when you last made a payment to the original creditor, and
- a statement including the original amount of the debt and a schedule of additional charges (such as late fees, interest, and attorneys’ fees) that were added.
Cannot communicate with anyone else or threaten to do so. A debt collector can only communicate with you (or your attorney) or others liable on the debt. It cannot communicate with other third parties. However, it can report your debt to a credit reporting agency. It can also contact your employer or others who may know how to contact you if the debt collector hasn’t been able find you.
Cannot threaten or harass you. A debt collector cannot harass, intimidate, threaten, or embarrass you. This includes contacting you too often or at unusual times. Washington law assumes a debt collector is harassing you if it calls three times in a week or more than once a week at your workplace. It is also harassing if it contacts you between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. (keep in mind that the FDCPA regulates calls before 8:00 a.m.).
A debt collector cannot make a threat to sue you or take any other legal action against you unless it is actually allowed to do so at the time it makes the threat. For example, a debt collector cannot threaten to immediately garnish your wages unless it has already sued you and obtained a judgment against you.
Mislead you into thinking it works for the police or other government agency. A debt collector cannot make any statement suggesting it is connected with the police or any other governmental agency. The Washington collection law prohibits debt collectors from wearing any kind of badge or wearing uniforms resembling police officer uniforms.
Cannot cause you to incur unnecessary cell phone charges. A debt collector cannot call or send text messages more than twice a day if it knows it is contacting you on a cell phone. It has to update its records monthly to determine whether the numbers it is calling are cell or landline numbers.
Similarly, a debt collector cannot intentionally block its own telephone number when it contacts you.
Debt Validation and Verification
If you ask a debt collector, in writing, to provide the name of the original creditor, your account number with that original creditor, or the date of your last payment, the collector must stop collection efforts until it provides you with this information. (The FDCPA has a similar provision; it is often referred to as debt validation or debt verification.) This can be crucial if you don’t know who the original creditor is or you want clarification on the amount owed.
You can also request that the debt collector provide you with a statement of the additional fees added to the debt, if it hasn’t already provided this to you. It must make a reasonable effort to obtain and provide the information to you.
If you dispute the amount of the debt and the debt collector has already reported the debt to a credit reporting agency, it must request that the credit reporting agency mark the debt as disputed. Once you dispute the amount of the debt, the debt collector can no longer contact your employer or and third party until the debt has been verified.
Other Prohibited Actions
Debt collectors cannot:
- publish a bad debts list with your name on it
- threaten to sell your debt to someone else just to coerce you to pay
- threaten to report you to a credit reporting agency unless it actually intends to do so
- contact you if you notified it to communicate only with your attorney (unless the attorney will not return their calls)
- use any name other than its licensed name
- give you papers that look like they are court documents if they aren’t
- pretend like it is trying to contact you because of an emergency
- say it will add fees to the debt unless the contract allows it to do so, or
- require you to pay for your communication with them (such as a toll call, except a collector can call you on your cell phone).
What You Can Do If a Debt Collector Violates Washington Law
If you believe a debt collector has violated Washington collection agency law, you should start by contacting the Department of Licensing by filling out a Business Resource Complaint at www.dol.wa.gov.
You can also file a complaint with the Washington Attorney General (AG) at www.atg.wa.gov. Keep in mind that there is no guarantee that the AG’s office will be able to investigate the complaint since it receives over 2,000 complaints per month.
If the collector has violated the federal FDCPA, you can file an online complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at FTC Complaint Assistant.
You can sue the debt collector in court. If a court agrees that the debt collector violated the Washington collection agency law, then it may award you damages as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees.
Getting More Information
You can find the full text of the Washington collection agency law in the Revised Code of Washington under Chapter 19.16. (To learn how to find state statutes, visit Nolo’s Legal Research Center.)