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 aren't.
The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 U.S.C. § 1692 and following) is intended to protect 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 collection methods used by debt collectors, information on whether the tactics are illegal, and what you can do to stop or alleviate the calls.
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 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.
If the collector doesn't yet have a judgment against you, it can't garnish your wages or bank accounts. If that's your situation, those threats are also unlawful. If the collector does have a judgment, however, those threats might not be illegal.
A collection agency can sue you, but it could take up to months before the lawsuit is over, and the agency gets an order to garnish your wages or bank account. But if the collection agency has no intention of suing you, making a threat to do so violates the FDCPA.
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 is not an illegal practice, as long as that is 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 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 doesn't comply with your request, you may use the letter as part of a complaint against the collection agency.
Beware of fake debt collectors. Scammers might 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 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 you can verify that it's 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're 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 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 to 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 during a call because the caller might be a fake debt collector.
Debt collectors use harassing phone calls to pressure you to pay a debt. Harassing behavior might include:
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.
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 calls, provide your attorney’s name and contact information. If the debt collector continues to call, note the times of the calls and inform your attorney because this phone tactic is a violation of the FDCPA.
If you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when trying to collect a debt from you, consider talking to an attorney to get advice about your options.