What to Do If a Bill Collector Crosses the Line

Learn how to stop debt collectors from harassing you.

By , Attorney

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 and following) prohibits debt collectors from engaging in abusive behavior. While the FDCPA's legal requirements are extensive and protective, violations aren't unusual. Sometimes, debt collectors inadvertently violate the law; other times, they ignore it.

You don't need to know every detail about the FDCPA to understand how to prevent debt collector harassment; just learn the basics. For instance, the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from doing any of the following:

  • Calling you repeatedly or contacting you at an unreasonable time. This prohibition applies to calls, emails, and texts.
  • Calling you more than seven times within seven consecutive days.
  • Contacting you at work if your employer prohibits it.
  • Using obscene or profane language, or using or threatening to use violence.
  • Claiming you owe more than you do.
  • Contacting you with a private message through social media unless they disclose their identity as a debt collector.
  • Claiming to be attorneys if they're not.
  • Claiming that you'll be imprisoned or your property will be seized if you don't pay.
  • Bringing or threatening to bring a legal action to collect a time-barred debt.
  • Contacting third parties unless they're asking about your whereabouts.

Knowing your basic rights will help you recognize and deal with debt collector harassment. And if a debt collector goes too far, here's how to stop them from harassing you.

1. Send a "Stop Contact" Letter

Under the FDCPA, you have the right to tell a collection agency employee to stop contacting you. To ask a collector to cease communication, send a letter by mail, return receipt requested (keep a copy), stating that you want the collection agency to stop all communications with you. You can also send this letter electronically using any kind of electronic communication that the collector uses to accept communications from consumers. So, if the debt collector accepts emails from consumers, you can send your message via email.

All collection agency employees are then prohibited from contacting you, except to tell you that collection efforts have ended or that the collection agency or original creditor intends to sue you or take advantage of some other legal remedy.

But stopping collection communications won't make a debt go away if you owe it. In fact, many debt counselors feel that, unless you're judgment proof or truly plan to file for bankruptcy, the best overall advice is not to ignore the debt or try and hide from a debt collector. Usually, the longer you put off resolving the issue, the worse the situation and the consequences will become. Whether you negotiate directly with the collector or get a lawyer's assistance, many counselors feel the best strategy almost always is to speak to the collector.

2. Stop Some Kinds of Collection Contacts

If you don't want to cut off all contact with a collector, you can tell the collector to stop contacting you in certain ways. Under the FDCPA, you can stop communications through a particular medium, subject to some exceptions. You don't have to put this kind of request in writing; you can just tell the collector to stop contacting you in a specific way.

Example. Say you tell a debt collector to "stop calling." This statement means you've requested that the debt collector not use telephone calls to communicate with you. Or if you have two cell phone numbers, you may ask that the debt collector not use one or both numbers.

The FDCPA also requires collectors who correspond with you by text, email, or another electronic medium to include a statement about how you can easily opt out of further electronic communications to that email address or phone number. For example, a text from a debt collector must include instructions on how you can opt out of future texts to that number.

And you can stop communications from collectors at inconvenient times or places, like at work or before noon, by telling a live operator that the contact is inconvenient.

3. Make the Collector Validate the Debt

The FDCPA requires a debt collector to give you a written or electronic debt validation notice in its initial communication or within five days of its initial contact with you. An oral notification is allowed when you're first contacted, but not later. The notice provides information about the debt, explains your rights, and tells you how to dispute the debt or request more information.

Asking the collector to validate the debt will stop harassment, at least temporarily. To get a collector to verify a debt, send a letter within 30 days of receiving a debt validation notice. The letter stops collection contacts until the collector sends you more information verifying the debt. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter. Even if you miss the 30-day deadline, the collector might still respond and stop contacting you until it verifies the debt, even though the law doesn't require it.

4. Hire a Lawyer to Represent You

If a collector keeps contacting you even after you send a stop contact letter or tell the collector not to contact you in certain ways, a letter from an attorney usually will. Debt collectors must stop contacting you once they know you're represented by an attorney, as long as the attorney responds to the collector's inquiries.

A lawyer can also represent you in court if you decide to sue the collector for legal violations (see below).

5. Inform the Collector That Your Income Is Exempt

Some kinds of income, like state or federal government benefits, such as Social Security, are exempt from collection, meaning creditors and collectors can't get their hands on the money. So, if you notify the collector over the phone or by sending a letter that exempt government benefits are your only source of income, the collector might decide to stop contacting you about the debt.

6. File a Complaint

You can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) if you have an issue with a debt collector. After you submit a complaint, the CFPB will work to get you a response, typically within 15 days. You can also file a complaint with Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal agency that oversees collection agencies.

In your complaint:

  • include the collection agency's name and address, the name of the collector, the dates and times of the conversations, and the names of any witnesses, and
  • attach copies of all offending materials you received and a copy of any recording you made (make sure it's legal to record the call).

You may also send a copy of your complaint to the state agency that regulates collection agencies for the state where the agency is located. In addition, send a copy of the FTC complaint to the original creditor and the collection agency. The original creditor might be concerned about its own liability and offer to cancel the debt.

Once your complaint is filed, don't expect immediate results. The FTC might take steps to sanction the agency if it has other complaints on record. The state agency might move more quickly to sue the collection agency or shut it down for egregious violations. But if nothing else, the collector might stop harassing you in the meantime.

7. File a Lawsuit Against the Debt Collector

The FDCPA allows the CFPB, FTC, and consumers like yourself to sue for violations. If you've been subject to repeated abusive behavior and can document it, consider suing the collection agency. But if the illegal behavior was merely annoying, don't bother. For example, if the collector called three times in one day but never again, you probably don't have a case.

To sue the debt collector, you can represent yourself in small claims court or hire a lawyer and go to regular court. The other side might have to pay your attorneys' fees and court costs if you win. If you win in court, you're entitled to recover:

  • the amount of any actual financial losses you suffered—for example, your therapy fees if you suffered extreme anxiety as a result of the collector's actions, or the amount you paid to switch to a different phone number to avoid harassment, and
  • an additional amount (unrelated to actual losses) up to $1,000 for any violation of the FDCPA.

If you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when trying to collect a debt from you, consider talking to a debt relief attorney to get advice about your options and learn about the merits of a potential lawsuit.

Learn More

If you'd like to know more about the FDCPA, go to the CFPB website.

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