The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), enacted in 1977, prohibits debt collectors from engaging in harassing, abusive, and unfair debt collection practices. But because Congress passed the law decades ago, the law didn't initially address modern communication methods like text messages, emails, voicemails, and social media.
On October 30, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, to clarify how debt collectors can use these digital communications. The rule explains how the FDCPA's protections apply to digital communications and gives consumers the ability to unsubscribe from debt collectors' electronic messages.
It also describes how collectors may use voicemails and limits how often debt collectors can call you. The final rule becomes effective on November 30, 2021, one year after publication in the Federal Register.
The final rule clarifies that debt collectors can send you texts and emails to try to collect a debt. The final rule doesn't cap the number of messages a collector may send. But the rule makes it clear that the FDCPA prohibition on harassing conduct, like contacting you excessively, as well as the ban on communicating with you at inconvenient times or places, applies to electronic communications, such as texts and emails. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.6, § 1006.14).
The FDCPA forbids harassing, oppressive, and abusive conduct—no matter what kind of communication media the debt collector uses. So, this prohibition applies to in-person interactions, telephone calls, audio recordings, paper documents, mail, email, text messages, social media, and other electronic media.
Example. Say a debt collector sends you numerous, unsolicited text messages about a debt each day for several consecutive days. The debt collector doesn't communicate or attempt to communicate with you using any other medium. You don't respond to the text messages. Even though the debt collector's conduct doesn't violate any specific conduct that the FDCPA mentions, like using obscene language or threatening violence, the messages were most likely intended to harass, oppress, or abuse you. So, the debt collector probably violated the FDCPA.
Generally, the FDCPA prohibits a collector from contacting you at an unusual or inconvenient time or place. Calls before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. are presumed to be inconvenient. But if you work nights and sleep during the day, a call at 1 p.m. might also be inconvenient.
You may set limits on debt collection communications to reflect your preferences. Just tell the collector when it's inconvenient for you to get communications about the debt. The final rule clarifies that a consumer need not use specific words to assert that a time or place is inconvenient for debt collection communications. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.6(b)).
Under the final rule, a debt collector who corresponds with you by text, email, or other electronic-medium must include a statement about how you can easily opt out of further electronic communications to that email address or telephone number. (For example, "Reply STOP to stop texts to this telephone number.") This requirement applies to specific email addresses, telephone numbers, or other electronic-medium addresses, like social media names or accounts. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.6 (e)).
The debt collector can't require you to pay a fee to opt out. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.6 (e)).
Generally, under the CFPB's final rule, a debt collector can't communicate or attempt to communicate with you by sending an email to an email address that the debt collector knows is a work email address, subject to some exceptions.
For example, a collector may send messages to your work email if you used the email address to communicate with the debt collector about the debt and you haven't opted out since, or you gave prior consent directly to the debt collector that it could use that email address and you haven't withdrawn consent. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.22(f), § 1006.6(d)).
In many situations, the FDCPA prohibits collectors from calling you at work as well.
The CFPB rule prohibits debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with you in connection with collecting a debt through a social media platform if the message is viewable by the general public or your social media contacts. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.22(f)(4)).
Debt collectors are allowed to send you private messages over social media unless, for example, you've asked that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with you. Also, suppose a debt collector sends you a private message via social media, like Facebook or LinkedIn, asking to be added as one of your contacts. In that case, the collector has to disclose their identity as a debt collector.
If you're active on social media and have debt in collections, take steps to protect yourself: Assume debt collectors monitor your social media accounts and don't post information about where you work, where you live, or your financial situation.
Under the final rule, a debt collector is presumed to violate the FDCPA if it places telephone calls to a specific person in connection with the collection of a particular debt in either of the following circumstances.
These limitations apply to each particular debt, not per consumer. So, a debt collector can call you more often if you owe on several debts they're trying to collect.
And again, the rule doesn't have a similar restriction on how many times a collector can contact you via text or email, but you can opt out from receiving them, and the frequency of messages can't be abusive or harassing.
Also, the limitation on calls has three exclusions:
The final rule permits a collector to leave voicemails, which could be heard by someone other than the debtor. But the voicemail must be a "limited-content message." A debt collector who leaves a limited-content message doesn't violate the FDCPA's prohibition against third-party communications.
A limited-content message is a voicemail that includes the following:
In addition, a limited-content message may include one or more of the following:
But the voicemail can't include any other information.
If you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when trying to collect a debt from you, consider talking to an attorney to get advice about your options. You might be able to sue and recover money and other damages.