Top Five Debt Collector Phone Tactics

Don't let debt collector calls catch you off guard.

Updated by , Attorney (University of Denver Sturm College of Law)

Many people have experienced intrusive, harassing, and sometimes threatening calls and messages from debt collectors. It's no secret that collection agencies use various phone and other tactics to get people to pay debts. Some of these practices are illegal, and some aren't.

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 and following) protects debtors from the 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.

Here we list the five most common telephone and related collection methods debt collectors use, information on whether the tactics are illegal, and what you can do to stop or alleviate the issue.

1. Making Threats

Debt collectors sometimes use threats to pressure people into paying a debt. These include threatening to:

Threats to Arrest You

The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from making threats they can't, or don't intend, to carry out. Because debt collection is a civil—not criminal—matter, the police won't get involved, and you won't go to jail for your failure to pay a debt.

So, any threats to arrest you are false and violate the FDCPA.

Threats to Garnish Your Wages or Levy Bank Accounts

If the collector has no money judgment against you, it can't garnish your wages or bank accounts. If that's your situation, those threats are unlawful.

But those threats might not be illegal if the collector received a judgment after suing you over a debt.

Threats of a Lawsuit

A collection agency can sue you. But it could take several months before a lawsuit ends and the collection agency 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.

2. Calling Neighbors and Family Members

It's 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 isn't illegal as long as that's all the debt collector asks about.

Generally, a collector can't contact a particular family member or neighbor more than once unless it believes it might 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 talking to third parties about your debt, other than as the FDCPA allows and is described above, write a letter to the debt collector requesting that it not repeatedly contact third parties about the debt or talk with those people about the debt. Keep a copy of this letter because if the debt collector doesn't comply with your request, you may use the letter as part of a complaint against the collection agency.

3. Illegally Contacting You Through Social Media

The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with you about a debt through a social media platform if the general public or your social media contacts can view the message. For example, a debt collector can't post a message on a social media webpage if that webpage is viewable by the general public or your social media contacts.

Debt collectors can send you private messages over social media. But 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.

However, debt collectors don't always comply with the law. If you're active on social media and have debt in collections, take steps to protect yourself: Assume debt collectors monitor your social media accounts and don't post information about where you work or your financial situation.

4. Making Harassing Calls

Debt collectors sometimes use harassing calls to pressure someone to pay a debt. Harassing behavior might include:

  • calling you at inconvenient times such as dinner time or holidays
  • calling outside the hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., or any other time inconvenient to you
  • calling your place of work when you are not allowed to take personal calls, or
  • using obscene language or yelling.

If you can, take notes of the time and content of each call. In some states, you can record phone calls; in others, that might be illegal. Again, you can request in writing that the debt collector stop contacting you by phone and contact you only by letter.

The FDCPA prohibition on harassing conduct, like contacting you excessively, and the ban on communicating with you at inconvenient times or places, applies to electronic communications, including texts.

5. Contacting You When An Attorney Represents You

Once you inform a debt collector that an attorney represents you, the collector must stop all communication with you and only communicate with your lawyer. When the debt collector contacts you, provide your attorney's name and contact information.

If the debt collector continues to contact you, note the times and inform your attorney because this tactic violates the FDCPA.

Talk to a Lawyer

Consider talking to a debt relief attorney if you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when trying to collect a debt from you. Also, if you have a lot of debts, you might want to consider filing for bankruptcy. In that situation, you'll want to talk to a bankruptcy lawyer.

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