A debt collector left a message on my answering machine? Is this legal?
It depends. If the machine is shared by others, or can be heard by others, then it's likely that the collector violated the law. If the machine is private, the collector might be able to leave a message, but must be very careful what it says. The federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) places limitations on how and when a debt collector can contact you, and what it says when it does. That includes leaving voice messages on your answering machine.
Under the FDCPA, a communication from a debt collector must meaningfully disclose the identity of the debt collector and provide what is called a “mini-Miranda” warning. The communication must:
While the FDCPA does not specifically discuss voice mail and answering machines—it was enacted in 1977 before voice mail and answering machines were common—many federal courts consider messages left on answering machines to be a “communication.”
That does not mean the debt collector's message on your machine is necessarily legal. This is because the FDCPA is also designed to protect your privacy. The FDCPA prohibits a debt collector from disclosing information about your debt to third parties. If your answering machine is shared with other people, then the communication might violate your rights under the FDCPA. If the debt collector fails to follow these requirements, or leaves misleading or harassing messages, then it might have violated other the parts of the FDCPA. (Learn what you can do if a debt collector violates the FDCPA.)
If the debt collector left the message on your cell phone or private voice mail, then its message was probably legal, so long as the debt collector provided meaningful disclosure and gave the mini-Miranda warning.
Your state's laws might provide you additional protection.
If you think you're being harassed or treated unfairly by a debt collector, consider talking to an attorney to learn more about your rights.