Handling Debt Collection Calls: Do's and Don'ts

Here's what you should—and shouldn’t—do when a debt collector calls.

Calls from debt collectors can be overwhelming and intimidating. But debt collectors often violate the law while trying to get money out of people. If you know your rights, you’ll be able to tell when the debt collector is crossing a line into illegal territory, and you won’t be intimidated by unlawful tactics. You might even be able to use the debt collector’s violations of the law to your benefit.

Also, learning some basic do's and don'ts about handling debt collector calls 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. First, you should decide if you want to talk to the collector. If so, be sure to keep a record of what you and the collector discuss. You might consider telling the collector if you think the debt isn’t yours, and if you can’t afford to pay the debt. But if you decide not to talk to the collector, send a written request that the collector cease communication with you.

On the other hand, here’s what you shouldn’t do. Don’t give a collector any personal financial information, make a “good faith” payment, make promises to pay, or admit the debt is valid. You don’t want to make it easier for the collector to get access to your money, or do anything that might revive the statute of limitations. If a debt collector tries to collect a time-barred debt from you, the most important thing is not to say or do anything that in any way admits that you owe the debt. By acknowledging the debt or even making even a token payment, you might inadvertently restart the limitations period. Finally, even though debt collectors are often rude and pushy, don’t lose your temper.

Learn About Your Legal Rights

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 and following) limits what collectors can and can’t do. For instance, this law prohibits debt collectors from using obscene language or threatening you with violence if you don’t pay. It also sets 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. Some states have similar laws that provide even more protections than the federal FDCPA. If the collector crosses the line and violates the law, you might be able to use the violation as leverage in settlement negotiations.

If the debt that the collector is calling about is several years old, find out what your state’s statute of limitations is for filing a lawsuit to collect the debt. Generally, the statute of limitation begins when you last made a payment, but it can also be the date you last used the account, made a promise to pay, entered a payment agreement, or even acknowledged liability for the debt. The actual date depends on the type of debt and the state law where you live or the state specified in your credit agreement. Consult with a legal aid lawyer, another lawyer in your state, or your state attorney general’s office to learn the applicable statute of limitations in your situation.

You Might Get Sued After the Statute of Limitations Period Expires

Just because the statute of limitations has expired doesn't mean a creditor or collector won't sue you. If you get sued, you'll have to raise the statute of limitations as a defense. If you don't, the creditor or collector might be able to get a judgment against you on an otherwise unenforceable debt.

Also, a statute of limitations doesn’t eliminate the debt—it just limits the collector’s ability to sue you for it. But you still might get collection letters or calls about a debt even if the statute of limitations has expired.

What to Do When a Debt Collector Calls

1. Decide If You Want to Talk to the Collector

If a debt collector contacts you, consider ignoring the calls or not responding to other communication methods—at least until you learn about your rights, find out if the debt is truly yours, and learn whether the statute of limitations has expired. You don't want to provide the collector with useful collection information inadvertently, or worse, say something that reaffirms the debt.

2. If You Decide to Talk to the Collector, Keep a Record

A collections log is a written record that you make of the date and time that a collector calls, the person you speak with, and what the collector says to you. Your log doesn't have to be anything fancy—writing it on a notepad or spare piece of paper is fine, or keeping a log using your computer or phone works too. 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 particular collector calls and document inconsistencies in what collectors say to you from one call to the next.

If the collector sends texts or leaves voicemails with abusive language, keep the messages. These records can be useful if you decide to sue the collector in court or if you decide to try to settle the debt.

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

Under the federal FDCPA, if you request that a debt collector stop contacting you completely, it must do so, subject to a few exceptions. Your request must be in writing.

But think carefully before you tell a collector to cease communicating with you. If you want to keep tabs on the debt status or open up the lines of communication with the collector to negotiate a settlement, a cease communication directive might not be in your best interest. If you ask the collector to stop corresponding with you, it can't contact you except to serve you with a lawsuit.

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

If you feel the debt isn't legitimate or you don't owe it, you should tell the collector why. Often, collectors aren't even aware that your debt might be uncollectable. If your reason is valid, the collector might voluntarily cease collection on the debt. Their resources could be 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 debt, and the collector must stop collection activities while it does so.

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

A collector doesn’t have to stop trying to collect just because you can't pay. But telling collectors that you can’t pay, and giving them a short explanation of your financial difficulties, might lead them to move on to other consumers. It might also prevent your file from being referred to litigation.

But be sure not to admit that you owe the debt or say anything that might restart an expired statute of limitations. Depending on your state, you might restart the statute of limitations if you make a partial payment on a debt or otherwise acknowledge that you owe a debt that you haven't been paying. A new promise to pay a debt might also revive the statute of limitations in some circumstances.

6. Give the Collector Your Current Address

Your instinct might be to hide from collectors by changing your phone number or refusing to provide your address. But hiding your whereabouts won't prevent a collector from trying to collect—it just will mean they might send letters and make calls to others that they think might know where you are or who they think are you. Collectors who don't know your location have a lot more legal leeway to contact employers or friends to ask for information about you, like for your address. But if the collector has your location information, then talking to employers or friends is illegal.

What Not to Do When a Debt Collector Calls

Here's what not to do when dealing with debt collector communications.

1. Don't Give a Collector Your Personal Financial Information

While some collectors might say they want information about your income to qualify you for a lower payment amount, you should never provide your personal financial information, including your:

  • bank account numbers (unless you’re actually making a payment—even then you might want to pay by some other method so the collector doesn’t get your banking information)
  • your Social Security number, or
  • the amount or value of property that you own.

This information might be used to collect from you through a wage garnishment, bank levy, or property lien if the creditor or collector gets a judgment against you.

You can, however, provide basic information about your financial troubles.

2. Don't Make a "Good Faith" Payment

Often, a debt collector will ask for you to voluntarily make a minimal payment, not under a settlement agreement. The collector might say that the payment shows you’re acting in "good faith." You might think that making this payment will prevent the collector from suing you or help your credit. Not true. What this small payment will do is extend the statute of limitations. 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 limitations period.

3. Don't Make Promises or Admit 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." Your acknowledgment of the obligation might revive the statute of limitations. Any promise you make to make a payment could be interpreted as a separate contract, renewing the statute of limitations for the debt.

4. Don't Lose Your Temper

Using profanity, screaming, or getting hostile, won't help you. If call records are needed for a court action, it will hurt you if you're the one who's abusive and not the collector. Also, if you lose your cool, you might accidentally provide the collector with information that you didn’t mean to divulge.

Talk to an Attorney

If you need help dealing with an aggressive debt collector, figuring out what option is best for handling your debts, negotiating a settlement, or responding to a lawsuit for nonpayment of a debt, consider consulting with a lawyer. Once you’ve hired a lawyer, under the FDCPA, a collector must talk to your attorney only—not you—unless you give permission to contact you or your lawyer doesn’t respond to the collection agency's communications.

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