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.

What to Do If a Debt Collector Reaches Out to You on Social Media

If a debt collector contacts you through social media, some of your options include:

  • You could just ignore the collector, but the collector might and probably will keep trying to communicate with you about the debt.
  • You may send a cease and desist letter to the collector telling it to stop all communications with you. But, again, this option usually isn't a good idea because it doesn't get rid of the underlying debt. Even if the debt collector can't contact you, it can still take legal steps to collect the debt, like filing a lawsuit. And it might be more likely to file a suit because it really has no other options. (But if it isn't your debt, the statute of limitations has expired, or you're planning on filing for bankruptcy, you might want to cease communications.)
  • Under the FDCPA, you can also stop communications through a particular medium, subject to some exceptions. So, you can say, "Don't contact me on social media." Then, the collector has to stop using that method to try to communicate with you.
  • If a debt collector violates the law, you could file a lawsuit against them.

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.

When Collector Calls Don't Violate the Law

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're 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 debt for less than you owe in a lump-sum payment.

You can avoid a potential lawsuit by making payment arrangements, and the debt collector might stop the annoying phone calls altogether.

Beware of Fake Debt Collectors

Scammers might hound you with calls or texts, pretending you owe a debt. Their goal is to get you to pay money to them. People behind in several accounts or who owe more than a few debts can easily believe that the call or message is about just another one of the debts they legitimately owe.

How to Determine If a Collector Is Real or Not

Never give out your personal information if someone contacts you saying you owe a debt. Instead, ask the person who contacts you to provide information to verify the debt. 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're suspicious of the caller, don't pay anything or give them any of your personal information until you research whether the caller is legitimate. First, search online for the caller's phone number. If it's a scammer, your search will likely reveal others with similar problems. But keep in mind that the number could be spoofed.

So, call the original creditor. The original creditor should be able to tell you which company it hired to collect your debt or who it sold the debt to and give you the contact information for that company.

Fake Collectors Often Target Older People

Older people are often the most susceptible to bogus debt collectors and might give out private information such as their Social Security numbers or credit card information. Doing so opens them up to becoming a victim of criminal behavior such as identity theft.

Be sure to advise your older friends and neighbors not to make any payments over the phone or provide personal information through a call or text because the caller might be a fake debt collector.

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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