Typically, creditors and collectors won’t call you about your debts unless you haven’t made payments. But if a debt goes into default, a creditor will either attempt to collect in-house or hire an outside agency to collect the debt. These third parties are referred to as “debt collectors” under federal law. Debt collectors are governed by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The FDCPA limits the ways a debt collector may communicate with you and others—including your employer—about your debt. It's not necessarily illegal for a debt collector to call you at work, but the FDCPA prohibits debt collection calls to your job if the debt collector “has reason to know” that your employer forbids those calls. (15 U.S.C. § 1692c).
Simply tell the debt collector to stop calling you at work. You don't need to ask the debt collector in writing, but it helps to keep a written record in the event of future problems. (Learn more about when debt collectors can't contact you at work.)
You can sue the debt collector in state or federal court for violating the FDCPA. The statutory damages are up to $1,000 for each action. In addition, you might be able to get actual damages, attorneys' fees, and court costs. (Learn more about damages for FDCPA violations.)
The FDCPA doesn't prevent creditors themselves from contacting you directly at work because they're not considered “debt collectors.” For example, if you're a month late on your car payment, the FDCPA doesn't forbid that creditor from calling you at work.
Although the FDCPA doesn’t cover collection actions by most creditors, it might or might not apply to a “debt buyer.” Debt buyers are in the business of buying old delinquent credit accounts and then collecting on them in-house. Debt buyers don’t extend loans or credit in the first place, but they buy accounts from creditors.
In the case of Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., 137 S.Ct. 1718 (2017), the United States Supreme Court held that a particular debt buyer was not subject to the FDCPA because it didn't meet the legal definition of a debt collector.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court applied a straightforward interpretation of the law and decided that businesses like Santander—ones that buy (and therefore own) the debt they’re trying to collect—aren’t attempting to collect “debts owed or due…another.” So, companies like Santander who attempt to collect debts owed to themselves aren’t debt collectors under the FDCPA.
But the Supreme Court didn’t explain whether this decision would apply to all debt buyers in every situation. Under the FDCPA, a debt buyer could potentially fall under the FDCPA's definition of a debt collector if their “principal purpose...is the collection of any debts.” In Henson, Santander convincingly argued its principal purpose was loan origination, which is different from debt buyers that primarily or exclusively buy and collect defaulted debts. (To get more information about the Henson case, see The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Doesn’t Apply to a Debt Owner.)
One court that did address the “principal purpose” definition in light of the Henson case is the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In August 2018, the Third Circuit held in Tepper v. Amos Financial, LLC, No. 17-2851, that an entity whose principal purpose is the collection of any debt—regardless of whether the entity owns the debt it collects—is a debt collector for purposes of the FDCPA.
You might have protection from workplace collection calls from creditors under the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). The FTCA prohibits creditors from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices. And the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) considers a collection telephone call to your workplace from a creditor who has—or should have—reason to know that such a call is prohibited by your employer to be an “unfair or deceptive act or practice.”
As with a debt collector, tell the creditor to stop calling you at work. It’s also a good idea to advise that creditor in writing, stating specifically that such calls are forbidden at your workplace.
Unlike the FDCPA, the FTCA does not give you a right to sue the creditor for violations. Instead, you can make a complaint with the FTC. The FTC will then conduct its own investigation and, when appropriate, take action against that creditor.
Your local and state laws might also offer additional protection from workplace collection calls from both debt collectors and creditors. State law might also provide for greater damages than what is allowed by federal law. Check with your state attorney general's consumer law department, or a local attorney, to find out what’s legal in your state.
If you're being harassed by a creditor or debt collector, consider talking to an attorney to learn more about your rights.