When Debt Collectors Can—and Can’t—Use Texts, Emails, Voicemails, and Social Media to Contact You

Learn about changes to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act that apply to modern technologies and digital communication methods, like texts, emails, voicemails, and social media, starting in late 2021.

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 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 one year after publication in the Federal Register, likely in November 2021.

Can Debt Collectors Text or Email Me?

Under the FDCPA, 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).

Prohibition on Harassing, Oppressive, or Abusive Conduct

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.

Can Debt Collectors Contact Me at Unusual or Inconvenient Times and Places?

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)).

Can You Opt Out of Debt Collectors' Electronic Communications?

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)).

Can a Debt Collector Email Me at Work?

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, or you gave prior consent directly to the debt collector that it could use that email address. (12 C.F.R. § 1006.22(f)(3)).

In many situations, the FDCPA prohibits collectors from calling you at work as well.

Can a Debt Collector Contact Me Through Social Media?

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 through 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.

How Many Times Can a Debt Collector Call Me?

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.

  • The collector calls more than seven times within seven consecutive days.
  • The collector calls within seven consecutive days of having had a telephone conversation about the debt. The date of the telephone conversation is the first day of the seven-consecutive-day period. (12 C.F.R. 1006.14).

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:

  • calls for which you gave prior consent
  • calls that don’t connect to the dialed number, and
  • calls placed to specific professional persons, like your attorney (12 C.F.R. 1006.14(b)(3)).

Can a Debt Collector Leave Voicemails About a Debt I Owe?

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 limited-content message is a voicemail that includes:

  • a business name for the debt collector that doesn’t indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business
  • a request that you reply to the message
  • the name or names of one or more natural persons whom you can contact to reply to the debt collector, and
  • a telephone number or numbers that you can use to reply to the debt collector.

In addition, a limited-content message may include one or more of the following:

  • a salutation
  • the date and time of the message
  • suggested dates and times for you to reply to the message, and
  • a statement that if you reply, you may speak to any of the company’s representatives or associates. (12 C.F.R. 1006.2(j)).

Talk to a Lawyer

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.

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