To effectively deal with debt collectors, it pays to learn what they can and can't do. Although most bill collectors are careful to follow the law when contacting you, some aren't. If a bill collector goes too far, you can take action.
The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. § 1692 and following) prohibits debt collectors from engaging in abusive behavior. Under the FDCPA, the term "debt collector" includes someone who regularly collects debts for others or whose main business is collecting debts. So, the FDCPA applies to debt collectors and sometimes debt buyers, but usually not to creditors collecting debts they originated. The law does apply to a creditor that collects its own debts under a different name.
What Debt Collectors Can't Do Under the Federal FDCPA
The federal FDCPA prohibits debt collectors and collection agencies from doing any of the following.
Claiming that you'll be imprisoned or your property will be seized.
Sending you a paper that resembles a legal document.
Adding unauthorized interest, fees, or charges.
Contacting third parties, other than your attorney, a credit reporting bureau, or the original creditor, except for the limited purpose of finding information about your whereabouts. Unless you have asked collectors in writing to stop contacting you, they can also contact your spouse, your parents (if you are a minor), and your codebtors.
What to Do If Debt Collectors Break the Law
Here's what you can do if debt collectors engage in illegal activity:
1. Tell Them to Stop
Under the FDCPA, you have the right to tell a collection agency employee to stop contacting you. Simply send a letter stating that you want the collection agency to cease all communications with you. All 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.
2. Document Illegal Behavior
If a debt collector breaks the law, document the violation as soon as it happens. Start a log and write down what happened, when it happened, and who witnessed it. Then, try to have another person present (or on the phone) during all future communications with the collector.
In some states, you can record phone conversations without the debt collector's knowledge. In others, this tactic is illegal. Check with your state consumer protection agency or a lawyer to find out what's permitted where you live.
3. 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 (again, 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. To find the agency, call information in that state's capital city or check the state's website.
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. Your best hope is that the creditor will offer to cancel the debt.
4. Sue the Debt Collector
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 may 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 an unlisted number to avoid harassment, and
an additional amount (unrelated to actual losses) up to $1,000 for any violation of the FDCPA.
Talk to an Attorney
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.
And if you have a lot of debts, you might want to consider filing for bankruptcy. In that situation, you'll want to talk to a bankruptcy lawyer.