Is it legal for a debt collector to call my cellphone?

The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from calling your cellphone in certain situations.

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) restricts certain types of debt collector calls. In many situations, these rules prohibit debt collection agencies and bill collectors from calling your cellphone in an attempt to collect a debt. Here's why.

What Is the FDCPA?

The FDCPA is a federal law that places limits on what bill collectors can do when attempting to collect debts from consumers. For the most part, it applies to debt collectors only, not to the original creditor collecting its own debt, and it usually does not apply to the collection of business debts. (Learn more about who the FDCPA applies to.)

In order to protect debtors from harassing phone calls and communications, the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from making certain types of communications. Several of these provisions make it risky for collectors to call consumer debtors on their cellphones. (Learn about other collection actions that violate the FDCPA.)

The FDCPA Prohibits Communications at Inconvenient Places

The FDCPA expressly states that debt collectors can't communicate with consumer debtors at an unusual time or place, or a time or place that the debt collector knows, or should know, is inconvenient. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c).

Because of the mobile nature of cellphones, when a collector calls you on your cellphone, he or she doesn't know where you are. If you're at a place where it's inconvenient for you to receive collection calls, then the collector has violated the FDCPA. For example, if the collector calls your mobile phone while you're at work, it might be a violation of the FDCPA. (Learn when the FDCPA prohibits collection calls to your work.)

Similarly, other places and times might be inconvenient. For example, a collector who calls your cell while you're attending a funeral, or teaching a college class, could be violating the FDCPA.

A conscientious debt collector can avoid some of the risk by immediately telling you who is calling and asking if it is a convenient time to talk.

Causing the Debtor to Incur Charges by Concealing the "True Purpose" of the Call

Another provision of the FDCPA prohibits debt collection agencies from causing you to incur charges or costs by hiding the true purpose of the call. (15 U.S. Code § 1692f).

Originally, this applied to things like collect calls and telegrams. However, today, it can also be applied to many people's cellphones if they will incur usage charges for the call. If it's not clear from the caller ID information or phone number that the call is from a debt collector, then the collector would be concealing the "true purpose" of the call—which is debt collection.

Unless the consumer is very familiar with the debt collector's phone number or name from prior calls, it's unlikely that most consumers will know they are getting a call from a collector on their cellphone.

What If the Bill Collector Violates the FDCPA by Calling You on Your Cellphone?

If the bill collector keeps calling your cellphone, particularly after you've notified him that it's not a convenient time or place to take the calls, or that you are incurring usage charges for the calls, you can sue the collector in small claims court for damages. (Learn more in What Can You Do If a Debt Collector Violates the FDCPA?)

You might also wish to consult with an attorney about the violations.

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