Many people complain about intrusive, harassing, and sometimes threatening phone calls from debt collectors. It’s no secret that collection agencies use various phone tactics to get people to pay debts. Some of these practices are illegal, and some are not. Here we list the five most common telephone collection methods used by debt collectors, information on whether the tactics are illegal, and what you can do to stop or alleviate the calls.
The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is intended to protect debtors from abusive and invasive collection practices of debt collectors. If a collector violates the FDCPA, the debtor has various remedies which range from complaining to government agencies to filing a lawsuit in court. (Learn about Illegal Debt Collection Practices under the FDCPA.)
Under the FDCPA, if you tell a debt collector to stop contacting you, it must do so. There are a few exceptions: It can contact you to tell you that collection efforts have ended or that the collection agency or original creditor intends to sue you or take advantage of some other legal remedy.
Although stopping a debt collector from contacting you might seem like a good idea, it’s not always the best strategy. Even though debt collection calls can be annoying, sometimes it’s better to keep tabs on the status of your account, rather than call off all communications and then be slapped with a lawsuit down the line. If the collection calls are causing you stress though, stopping the calls might be a good idea.
Here are some of the most common collection methods that collectors use on the phone to get you to pay debts.
Debt collectors sometimes use threats to pressure people into paying a debt. These include threatening to:
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from making threats they cannot, or do not intend, to carry out. Since debt collection is a civil, not criminal, matter, the police will not get involved and you will not go to jail for your failure to pay a debt. This means that any threats to arrest you are false, and violate the FDCPA. (To learn more, see Can I Go to Jail if I Don't Pay My Debts?)
If the collector does not yet have a judgment against you, it cannot garnish your wages or bank accounts. If that is your situation, those threats are also unlawful. (If the collector does have a judgment, however, those threats may not be unlawful.)
A collection agency can sue you, but it could take up to months before the lawsuit is over and it gets an order to garnish your wages or bank account. However, if the collection agency has no intention of suing you, making a threat to do so violates the FDCPA.
It is not unusual for a debt collector to contact your neighbors and family members when trying to collect a debt from you. Contacting a third party to get information about your whereabouts is not an illegal practice, as long as that is all the debt collector asks about. Generally a collector cannot contact a particular family member or neighbor more than once, unless it believes it may learn new information. When talking to a third party, the debt collector may not discuss your account or any other information about your debt. If it does, it has violated the FDCPA.
To stop a creditor from contacting a third party, write a letter to the debt collector requesting that it not contact any third parties about you. Keep a copy of this letter, because if the debt collector does not comply with your request, you may use the letter as part of a complaint against the collection agency.
Beware of fake debt collectors. These are scammers who hound you with phone calls and letters, pretending that you owe a debt. Their goal is to get you to pay money to them. People who are behind in several accounts or owe more than a few debts can easily believe that the call is just another one of the debts they legitimately owe.
How to tell if a collector is real or not. Never give out personal information to callers. Instead, ask the caller to provide you with the information so that you can verify that it is correct. A legitimate debt collector should be able to provide you with the name of the original creditor, the addresses of the original creditor and the collection agency, your name and address, and the amount of the debt. If you are suspicious of the caller, get the caller’s information and write a follow-up letter asking that they only contact you in writing in the future.
Fake collectors often target the elderly. Elderly people are often the most susceptible to fake debt collectors, and may give out private information such as their social security numbers or credit card information. This opens them up to falling victim to criminal behavior such as identify theft. Be sure to advise your elderly friends and neighbors not to make any payments over the phone or provide personal information to people on the phone, because they may be a fake debt collector.
Debt collectors use harassing phone calls to pressure you to pay a debt. Harassing behavior might include:
To learn more about when and where the collector can and cannot call you, see Can a debt collector call me late at night? and A debt collector is calling me at work. Is this a violation of the FDCPA?)
If you can, take notes of the time and content of each phone call. In some states, you can tape the phone calls; in others that might be illegal. (To learn more about what you can do if a debt collector harasses you or otherwise violates the law when trying to collect a debt from you, see What Can You Do If a Debt Collector Violates the FDCPA?)
Again, you can request in writing that the debt collector stop contacting you by phone and only contact you by letter.
Once you inform a debt collector that you are represented by an attorney, the collector must stop all communication with you and only communicate with your attorney. When the debt collector calls, provide your attorney’s name and contact information. If the debt collector continues to call, you should take note of the times of the calls and inform your attorney, because this phone tactic is a violation of the FDCPA.
While phone calls from debt collectors might be annoying and some might be illegal, not all phone calls are bad. Some debt collectors will be very polite on the phone. If you are able and willing to pay the debt, consider taking the call and talking to the debt collector. You might be able to arrange a payment plan, or pay off the balance in a lump sum payment. By making payment arrangements, you can avoid a potential lawsuit and the debt collector may stop the annoying phone calls altogether. (Learn more about Negotiating With Collectors on Unsecured Debts.)