The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) makes some collection tactics that debt collectors often use—like using profane language or threatening you—illegal. If a debt collector violates your rights under this federal law, you have the right to sue that collector. If you win your suit, you’re entitled to recover damages (money) for any injuries, up to $1,000 in additional damages, and attorneys’ fees. Some state debt collection laws mirror the FDCPA, and some offer more protection to consumers. These state laws might cover creditors, specify additional types of behavior that violates state law, or provide for other kinds of damages.
You don't have to hire a lawyer to represent you in an FDCPA case, but you’ll need to figure out how to file documents with the court, learn the rules of evidence, and master the intricacies of the law to handle your case effectively. People who're represented by a lawyer are much more likely to win a lawsuit. An experienced and skilled lawyer can help you navigate the court rules and advise you about your various options.
And, lawyers do more than just handle lawsuits. They can offer strategic advice and apply sophisticated technical skills to legal problems. If you’re uncomfortable negotiating with debt collectors yourself, a lawyer can handle the settlement talks for you and help you avoid common debt negotiation mistakes. Also, when a collector violates the FDCPA, a lawyer might be able to use that infringement as leverage to settle your debt. A local lawyer can also tell you if any state laws apply to your situation and inform you about all of your options for dealing with your debts. Under the FDCPA, once you’ve hired a lawyer, 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.
Here are some potential ways to find a lawyer, discussed in more detail below:
If you decide to get legal representation, here’s how you can find a lawyer.
Don't expect to find a good lawyer by merely doing a basic online search and picking one of the first lawyers on the results page. You generally won’t get enough information that way to help you make an appropriate selection. Instead, one approach is to talk to people you know and ask for referrals. But don't decide on a lawyer solely from someone else's recommendation. Different people will have different responses to a lawyer's style and personality; don't make up your mind about hiring a lawyer until you've met the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided that you feel comfortable working with that lawyer.
It might also be difficult to get a lawyer through a personal referral with the expertise you need. For instance, say your friend had a great divorce lawyer, but because you need advice about dealing with an abusive debt collector, that referral probably won’t do you much good. And, you might not be comfortable admitting to others that you have a debt issue, so here are a few other places to get information about lawyers.
The National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) is a nonprofit association of more than 1,500 lawyers and consumer advocates that represent consumers’ interests. NACA can help you find a lawyer to take your case to sue a debt collector for illegal debt collection practices. Go to NACA’s Find an Attorney website to look for members by state and specialty.
If you have a low income and limited assets or are a senior citizen, you might qualify for free legal help from a legal services office. To find free legal aid programs in your area, along with information and useful forms, go to LawHelp.org. You can also get a list of various legal aid programs near you on the Legal Service Corporation's website.
Nolo offers a lawyer directory that provides a profile for each lawyer, organized by area of expertise. Also, two sites that are part of the Nolo family, Lawyers.com and Avvo.com, provide excellent and free lawyer directories. These directories allow you to search by location and area of law, and list detailed information about and reviews of lawyers. Whether you’re just starting your lawyer search or researching particular attorneys, visit www.lawyers.com/find-a-lawyer and www.avvo.com/find-a-lawyer.
Most local and state bar associations have lists of lawyers who practice in different areas.
Some lawyers take on a certain number of pro bono cases (meaning the lawyer works for free) to help people who have little or no income or based on other factors. Your state bar association can also tell you if a lawyer might be willing to assist you on a pro bono basis.
After you find a lawyer, explain how the debt collector’s actions have affected you. Don’t hide your feelings or sugarcoat details about the harassment. All details are essential in figuring out what type of legal case you have, so be sure to mention:
By talking with the lawyer, you can get answers to your questions, learn about your options, and figure out the best way to exercise your legal rights.
Debt collectors know that an FDCPA lawsuit can be expensive to defend and could result in a judgment against them. So, you might be able to use FDCPA violations as leverage in debt negotiations. A lawyer can analyze your evidence and let you know how much leverage you have, and help you negotiate settlements if you need assistance.
Make sure you have evidence of the violation—like records showing an excessive number of phone calls or a thread of threatening text messages. It’s a good idea to keep a log of when the collector calls, including the date and time, and be sure to note who called and exactly what the collector said. Share this log with the lawyer. If the collector leaves abusive voicemails with obscene or profane language, keep the messages and play them for the lawyer. These records will also be useful if you decide to sue the collector in court.
Before you decide to sue the collector or try to work out a settlement, be sure to consider all options, like filing for bankruptcy. A lawyer can go over all of your potential options with you.