Handling Debt Collection Calls: Dos and Don'ts

Here's what you should, and should not, do when a debt collector calls.

Calls from debt collectors can be overwhelming and intimidating. But learning some dos and don'ts about handling debt collector calls and understanding your rights when it comes to debt collection agencies can ease your anxiety. More importantly, by knowing what to do and say when a debt collector calls, you can avoid making a mistake that could put you at legal or financial risk.

What to Do When a Debt Collector Calls

Here are some things that you should do when dealing with collection calls or speaking with collection agents.

Keep a Collections Log

A collections log is a written record that you make of the date and time that a collector calls, the employee that you speak with, and what the collector says to you. Your log does not have to be anything fancy -- writing it on a notepad or spare piece of paper is fine.

A collections log will help you straighten out who is calling you from where, and what debts each collector is calling about. It will also help you keep track of how often a certain creditor calls and document inconsistencies in what collectors say to you from one call to the next.

Write to the Collector to Request it Stop Contacting You (If That's What You Want)

Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, if you request that a debt collector stop contacting you completely, it must do so (with a few exceptions). Your request must be in writing.

Think carefully before you do this. If you want to keep tabs on the status of the debt and/or open up the lines of communication with the collector in order to negotiate a settlement, this might not be in your best interest. If you request that the collector cease communication with you, it cannot contact you except to serve you with a lawsuit.

Tell the Collector If You Think You Don't Owe the Debt

If you feel the debt isn't legitimate, or that you don't owe it, you should tell the collector why. Often, collectors aren't even aware that your debt may be uncollectable. Many times, if your reason is valid, collectors will voluntarily cease collection on the debt, as their resources are better used on consumers who don't have a valid objection to paying the money.

If you act quickly, you can request in writing that the debt collector validate the date (provide certain information about it) and stop collection activities while it does so. However, consumer lawyers report that debt collectors usually don't provide much in the way of information in response to these requests. To learn more, see Debt Validation.

Tell the Collector You Can’t Afford to Pay (If You Can't)

There is nothing that legally obligates a collector to stop collecting just because you can't pay. However, telling collectors that you can’t pay, and giving them a short explanation of your financial difficulties, may lead them to move on to other consumers. It may also prevent your file from being referred to litigation.

Give the Collector Your Current Address

Your instinct may be to hide from collectors by changing phone numbers or refusing to provide addresses.

Hiding your whereabouts will not prevent a collector from trying to collect -- it just will mean they may send letters and make calls to others that they think may know where you are, or who they think are you.

Making matters worse, collectors who don't have a consumer's address also have a lot more legal leeway in contacting employers or friends to ask about your address. If the collector does have your current address, then contacting employers or friends is illegal.

Know What the Collector Can and Cannot Do

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using abusive or harassing tactics. It also sets forth limits on when and where the collector can contact you, prohibits collectors from communicating with others about your debt (with a few exceptions), and more. (Learn more about the FDCPA and what you can do if the collector violates it, in Illegal Debt Collection Practices.)

What Not to Do When a Debt Collector Calls

Here are some mistakes that are commonly made when dealing with debt collectors:

Giving a Collector Your Personal Financial Information

While some collectors may say they want information about your income in order to qualify you for a lower payment amount, you should never provide your personal financial information.

This means you should never:

  • provide bank account numbers (unless you are actually making a payment)
  • provide your social security number, or
  • discuss the amount or value of property that you own.

This information may be used to collect from you if the creditor or collector gets a judgment against you.

You can provide basic information about your income or financial troubles. As a general rule, if information could be used by an identity thief, it should not be given to a collection agency.

Making a "Good Faith" Payment

Often a consumer will voluntarily make a very small payment to a collector. and not pursuant to a settlement agreement. You might make the payment to show "good faith" or because you believe that doing so will keep you from being sued or avoid ruining your credit.

But what this small payment can do is extend the statute of limitations (the time limit that a debt collector can sue you for the debt). This is because in most states, the statute of limitations clock starts ticking from the date you made the last payment. Every new payment, no matter how small, restarts the statute of limitation clock.

Making Promises or Admitting the Debt is Valid

Even if it’s clear you owe the money, you should refrain from making any statements such as "I know I owe this and will pay you as soon as I can" or "I can start paying you next month."

You can make offers of settlement, such as "I will agree to pay $200 a month," or "will you take $1,000 to resolve the debt?" You can also explain why you can't pay. However, any promise you make to make a payment could be interpreted as a separate contract, renewing the statute of limitations for the debt.

Losing Your Temper

Using profanity, screaming, or getting hostile, won't help you. If your call records are ever reviewed by the collection agency, or ever needed for a court action, it will hurt you if it’s you, and not the collector, who is the abusive one.

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