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Illegal Debt Collection Practices
Learn what bill collectors can and can't do under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Updated by Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney (University of Denver Sturm College of Law)
If you're dealing with a collector or have a debt that might soon go to collection, it's essential to know what debt collection agencies are allowed to do under the law.
The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 and following) makes some tactics that collection agencies commonly use illegal, like:
contacting third parties about your debt
engaging in conduct meant to harass, oppress, or abuse you, and
lying to you or misleading you.
Below we outline some of the more important restrictions so you know what bill collectors can and can't do.
What Types of Debts Are Covered Under the FDCPA?
The FDCPA applies to debts that a consumer incurs primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. So, for example, the FDCPA covers credit card debt, car loans, and medical bills.
Unlawful Debt Collection Practices Under the FDCPA
The FDCPA requires that a collection agency make specific disclosures and prohibits collectors from engaging in many kinds of abusive or deceptive behavior.
Can a Debt Collector Contact Anyone Else About My Debt?
For the most part, a collection agency can't contact third parties about your debt, subject to a few exceptions.
Collectors are allowed to contact:
Your attorney. If the collector knows an attorney represents you, it must talk to the attorney only, not you, unless you give it permission to contact you or your attorney doesn't respond to the agency's communications.
Collectors can also contact your spouse, parents (only if you're a minor), and codebtors. But they can't make these contacts if you've sent a letter asking them to cease communication (see below).
Also, debt collectors are allowed to contact third parties for the limited purpose of finding information about your whereabouts. In these contacts, collectors:
must state their name and that they're confirming location information about you
can't identify their employer unless asked
can't state that you owe a debt
can't contact a third party more than once unless required to do so by the third party, or unless they believe the third party's earlier response was wrong or incomplete and that the third party has correct or complete information
can't communicate by postcard
can't use any words or symbols on the outside of an envelope that indicates they're trying to collect a debt (including a business logo or letterhead) if either would give away the purpose of the letter, and
can't call third parties for location information once they know an attorney represents you.
A debt collector's first communication with you must tell you that they're attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained from you will be used for that purpose. The collector must also state that "the communication is from a debt collector" in subsequent communications.
These disclosures are often called a "mini-Miranda." Also, in later communications, the collector must tell you the collector's and agency's names.
Debt collectors must make the mini-Miranda disclosures in the same language or languages used for the rest of the communication in which the disclosures are conveyed. Collectors don't have to identify which consumers can't communicate in English nor provide translations in multiple languages.
Can Debt Collectors Contact Me at Any Time or Place?
A collector can't contact you:
at an unusual or inconvenient time or place (calls before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. are presumed to be inconvenient, but if you work nights and sleep during the day, a call at 1:00 p.m. might also be inconvenient)
directly, if it knows or should have known that you have an attorney, or
at work, if it knows that your employer prohibits you from receiving collections calls at your place of employment. If you're contacted at your job and are not allowed personal calls there, tell the collector that your boss prohibits such calls.
Harassment and Abuse
Generally, a collection agency can't engage in conduct meant to harass, oppress, or abuse. Specifically, it can't:
use or threaten to use violence or other criminal means to harm you, another person, or your or another person's reputation or property
use obscene, profane, or abusive language
publish your name as a person who doesn't pay bills (child support collection agencies are exempt from this restriction in some states)
list your debt for sale to the public
call you repeatedly, or
place telephone calls to you without identifying the caller as a bill collector.
Making Too Frequent Phone Calls
Under the FDCPA, a debt collector may not call you more than seven times within seven consecutive days or within a period of seven consecutive days after having had a telephone conversation with you in connection with the collection of such debt. The date of the telephone conversation is the first day of the seven-consecutive-day period.
This limitation applies to each particular debt, not per consumer. So, a debt collector can call you more often if you owe several debts they're trying to collect.
And the limitation on telephone call frequency limit 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.
Making False or Misleading Representations
A collection agency can't lie. For example, it can't:
claim to be a law enforcement agency or suggest that it is connected with the federal, state, or local government (a collector making this kind of claim is probably lying unless it's trying to collect unpaid child support or it's a private check diversion program under contract with a district attorney)
falsely represent the amount you owe or the amount of compensation the collection agency will receive
claim to be an attorney or that a communication is from an attorney
claim that you'll be imprisoned or your property will be seized unless the collection agency or original creditor intends to take action that could result in your going to jail or your property being taken (you can go to jail only for extremely limited reasons)
threaten to take action that isn't intended or can't be taken—for example, if a letter from a collection agency states that it is a "final notice," it can't write you again demanding payment
falsely claim you've committed a crime
threaten to sell a debt to a third party, and claim that, as a result, you'll lose defenses to payment you had against the creditor, such as a breach of warranty
communicate false credit information, like failing to state that you dispute a debt
send you a document that looks like it's from a court or attorney or part of a legal process if it isn't
use a false business name, or
claim to be employed by a credit bureau unless the collection agency and the credit bureau are the same company.
How Can a Debt Collector Contact Me?
With some restrictions, debt collectors may use letters and phone calls to communicate with you.
The FDCPA also allows debt collectors to use newer technologies, such as email and text messages, to communicate with consumers regarding their debts, subject to certain limitations protecting consumers against harassment or abuse. For example, debt collectors are prohibited from communicating or attempting to communicate through a social media platform if the message is viewable by the general public or your social media contacts.
Also, if a debt collector sends you a private message via social media, like Facebook or LinkedIn, asking to be added as one of your contacts, the collector is supposed to disclose their identity as a debt collector.
A collection agency can't engage in any unfair or outrageous method to collect a debt. For example, it can't:
add interest, fees, or charges not authorized in the original agreement or by state law
accept a check postdated by more than five days unless it notifies you between three and ten days in advance of when it will deposit the check
deposit a postdated check prior to the date on the check
solicit a postdated check for the purpose of then threatening you with criminal prosecution
cause you to incur communications charges, such as collect call fees, by concealing the true purpose of the communication
threaten to seize or repossess your property if it has no right to do so or no intention of doing so
communicate with you by postcard, or
put any words or symbols on the outside of an envelope sent to you that indicate it's trying to collect a debt.
Leaving Voicemails That Aren't Limited in Content
Voicemails the collector leaves must be limited to giving the collection agency's business name (without indicating the company is in the debt collection business), making a request that you respond to the voicemail, and providing contact information for whoever you should contact.
A debt collector who leaves a limited-content message doesn't violate the FDCPA's prohibition against third-party communications.
Sending Messages to Your Work Email
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 if you gave prior consent directly to the debt collector that it could use your work email address and you haven't withdrawn consent, then the collector can email you at that address.
Collection of Time-Barred Debts
A debt collector must not bring or threaten to bring a legal action against a consumer to collect a time-barred debt (a debt where the statute of limitations has expired). This change is consistent with case law, which says threats of lawsuits after the statute of limitations has expired violate the FDCPA.
A collector violates this provision even if unaware that a debt is time-barred.
How Can I Stop a Debt Collector From Contacting Me?
The FDCPA gives you the right to tell a debt collector to stop contacting you. But if you have debt in collection, that's not always your best move.
You can use your knowledge of these laws to protect yourself from harassment. For example, if a collector violates one of these laws, you might be able to:
use the violation to negotiate a favorable settlement