Prohibited California Debt Collection Activities

Learn what constitutes illegal debt collection activities in California.

The Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“Rosenthal Act”) is a California law that prohibits debt collectors from engaging in abusive or deceptive bill collection practices. California’s protections are more extensive, and offer additional protections to consumers, than those provided in the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

In this article, you'll learn details about California's collection laws.

Rules That Debt Collectors Must Follow

The Rosenthal Act contains a lengthy list of regulations that apply to debt collector activities. As you read this article, keep in mind that some of the prohibitions appear in both the Rosenthal Act and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Also, be aware that the term "debt collector" under California law includes original creditors, as well as third-party debt collectors.

Can a Collector Threaten Me Personally? Or Threaten to Have Me Arrested?

Under California law, a debt collector can’t make any of the following threats.

  • Use or threaten to use physical force or criminal tactics to harm you, your property, or your reputation.
  • Intimidate you by accusing you of committing a crime by not paying the debt—unless you can be charged with a crime for not paying, which is very rare.
  • Make defamatory statements to someone else, nor threaten to do so.
  • Incorrectly threaten to assign the debt to someone and tell you that you would lose any defense to the debt in the process.
  • Threaten to arrest you, seize assets, or garnish your wages, unless the collector actually plans on taking such an action and it is legally allowed to do so. (In most cases, a collector must sue you and obtain a judgment before taking certain collection actions, like garnishing your wages.) (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.10).

Can a Debt Collector Use Obscene Language or Harass Me?

Debt collectors are limited in what they may say, as well as the methods they may use, to contact you—especially on the telephone.

  • A debt collector can’t use obscene or profane language.
  • A caller must disclose his or her identity when calling you on the phone.
  • A collector can’t misrepresent himself or herself in a way that would cause you spend money you wouldn't otherwise have spent, like for a long-distance telephone call or other similar charges.
  • A debt collector can’t call you repeatedly or let your phone ring repeatedly to annoy you.
  • A collector can’t communicate you with such frequency as to constitute harassment, whether on the phone or in person. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.11).

Debt Collectors Must Tell You If the Statute of Limitations Has Expired

The Rosenthal Act requires a debt collector to inform you if the statute of limitations for a particular debt has passed. The collector has to include the notice in the first written communication it sends you after the statute of limitations expires. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.14).

The law also bans collectors from filing a lawsuit or initiating arbitration or any other legal proceeding to collect a time-barred debt. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 337).

Can a Debt Collector Call Me at Work?

The Rosenthal Act contains a number of regulations requiring debt collectors to protect your privacy.

  • A debt collector may contact your employer—but only to verify your employment, locate you, to find out if you have medical insurance (in the case of a medical debt), or to garnish your wages after getting a judgment against you.
  • A collector can’t reveal information about your debt to your family except to your spouse or your parents if you’re a minor (or if you live in the same household). A collector can contact your family to locate you though.
  • A collector can’t publish your name in a public list—known as a “deadbeat list”—for failing to pay.
  • If a debt collector sends you mail, the envelope can’t show any information about the debt that’s intended to embarrass you. It may show only the name, address, and telephone number of the debtor and the debt collector. A collector can’t send you postcards. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.12).

Can a Debt Collector Try to Trick Me Into Paying a Debt?

Collectors also can’t do any of the following.

  • Say they’re lawyers if they aren’t, use letterhead that includes an lawyer’s name unless the letter is from a law firm or a lawyer approves the letter, or threaten you with a lawsuit unless they intend to file one.
  • Make it appear that they’re acting under the government’s authority, unless they’re trying to collect debts for the government.
  • Say that they’ll charge you additional collection or attorneys' fees unless they’re legally entitled to by law or by an agreement you made with them.
  • Represent themselves as a credit reporting agency, or say they’re going to report you to a credit reporting agency, if they have no intention of doing so.
  • Send a letter that appears to come from a claim, credit, audit, or legal department unless it actually is from by one of those departments. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.13).

      No Contact If You Have a Lawyer

      If your lawyer agreed to talk to creditors on your behalf and sent written notice to them, then debt collectors can’t contact you. But if the lawyer fails to answer the collector’s correspondence, return telephone calls, or discuss the obligation in question, then the collector may contact you. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.14).

      Debt Collectors Have to Respect the Judicial Process

      While everyone should respect judicial proceedings, California law imposes some specific additional requirements for debt collectors.

      • A debt collector has to serve you with notice of a lawsuit if it sues you. And if the creditor gets a default judgment, it can't collect or attempt to collect the debt if it knows that you weren't legally served.
      • A collector can sue you only in the county where you incurred the debt, lived when you incurred the debt, or live now. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.15).

      See a Lawyer

      If you think a debt collector has violated California law when trying to collect from you, you have rights. Consider talking to an attorney to get advice about your options.

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