Washington Collection Agencies Law

Washington law requires debt collectors to get a license and prohibits some types of activities.

In Washington, both the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and state collection agency laws regulate debt collectors. The FDCPA applies to every state, and it protects consumers from unfair and deceptive debt collection practices. The FDCPA also prohibits debt collectors from contacting you at certain times and places. Likewise, the Washington Collection Agency Act protects those whose debts are in collection. It requires debt collectors to be licensed, prohibits unfair and deceptive actions, and regulates how a collector can communicate with you. And, similar to the FDCPA's debt validation requirement, it gives consumers the right to request that a debt collector verify a debt.

Debt Collectors Must Get a License to Collect in Washington

Washington law requires debt collectors to get a license from the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) and post a bond before attempting to collect debts. They must renew their licenses yearly. Out-of-state debt collectors also have to get a license before attempting to collect from Washington residents. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.110).

You can check to see whether a particular debt collector is licensed on the DOL website. If the DOL suspects that a debt collector is unlicensed it may investigate. The DOL routinely fines unlicensed debt collectors.

Who Is Considered a Debt Collector Under Washington Law?

The definition of a "collection agency" (debt collector) under Washington law is similar to the FDCPA's definition. Those who are in the business of collecting debts on others' behalf are considered collectors, as well as debt buyers. But original creditors are not.

Original Creditors Don't Need a License

Original creditors and other creditors who don't regularly collect debts aren't required to be licensed in Washington. For example, a small business doesn't need to get a license before its owner can contact you regarding a debt (assuming the company isn't in the debt collection business, of course). Similarly, financial institutions and real estate brokers, for example, don't need to be licensed. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.100).

Billing Service Providers Don't Need a License

Billing service companies that simply send statements or manage payments don't need to be licensed. For example, a company that a homeowners' association hires to collect assessments, charges, or fines, doesn't have to get a license. Other property management companies are exempt as well. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.100).

Prohibited Collection Activities Under Washington Law

Washington law limits the methods that debt collectors can use to collect debts and how they communicate with you and third parties. It also gives you specific rights if you want to challenge the validity of a debt. As you read this section, keep in mind that debt collectors must comply with both Washington's regulations and the FDCPA's requirements, but this section is limited to Washington law.

A Collector Must Provide Specific Information Upon First Contact

The first time a debt collector sends you a letter, notice, form, or anything else, it must include the following:

  • the debt collector's business address and licensee name
  • the name of the original creditor (if the debt collector knows it) as well as your original account number (which can be redacted)
  • when you last made a payment to the original creditor, if known, and
  • a statement including the amount owing on the original obligation at the time it was received by the collector for collection and a schedule of additional charges (such as late fees, interest, and attorneys' fees) that were added. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

A Collector Can't Communicate With Anyone Else or Threaten to Do So

A debt collector can only communicate with you (or your attorney) or others liable for the debt. It generally can't communicate with third parties. But it can report your debt to a credit reporting agency. It can also contact your employer or others who might know how to locate you if the debt collector can't find you. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

A Collector Can't Threaten or Harass You

A debt collector can't harass, intimidate, threaten, or embarrass you. This prohibition includes contacting you too often or at unusual times. Washington law assumes a debt collector is harassing you if it calls three times a week or more than once a week at your workplace. It's also considered harassing if a collector contacts you between 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. (Keep in mind that the FDCPA regulates calls before 8:00 a.m.) (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

A debt collector also can't make a threat to sue you or take any other legal action against you unless it is actually allowed to do so at the time it makes the threat. For example, a debt collector can't threaten to immediately garnish your wages unless it has already sued you and got a judgment against you. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

A Collector Can't Mislead You Into Thinking It Works for the Police or Another Government Agency

A debt collector can't make any statement suggesting it is connected with the police or any other governmental agency. Washington law prohibits debt collectors from wearing any kind of badge or wearing uniforms resembling police officer uniforms. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

A Collector Can't Excessively Contact You Via Cellphone

A debt collector can't call or send text messages more than twice a day if it knows it is contacting you on a cellphone. A communication isn't in violation of this law if, at least monthly, the collector updates its records and uses a number not appearing in the most recent list, and doesn't otherwise know or reasonably should know that the number is for a cellphone. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

Similarly, a debt collector can't intentionally block its own telephone number when it contacts you. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

Debt Validation and Verification Requirements

If you ask a debt collector, in writing, to provide the name of the original creditor, your account number with that original creditor, or the date of your last payment, the collector must stop collection efforts until it provides you with this information. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250). (The FDCPA has a similar provision; it is often referred to as "debt validation" or "debt verification.") This information can be crucial if you don't know who the original creditor is or you want clarification on the amount owed.

You can also request that the debt collector provide you with a statement of the additional fees added to the debt if it hasn't already provided this to you. It must make a reasonable effort to obtain and provide the information to you. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

If you dispute the amount of the debt and the debt collector has already reported the debt to a credit reporting agency, it must request that the credit reporting agency mark the debt as disputed. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

Other Prohibited Debt Collector Actions

Debt collectors also can't take the following actions.

  • Publish a bad debts list with your name on it.
  • Threaten to sell your debt to someone else to coerce you to pay.
  • Threaten to report you to a credit reporting agency unless it actually intends to do so.
  • Contact you if you notified it to communicate only with your attorney (unless the attorney will not respond).
  • Use any name other than its licensed name.
  • Give you papers that look like they are court documents if they aren't.
  • Pretend like it is trying to contact you because of an emergency.
  • Say it will add fees to the debt unless the contract allows it to do so.
  • Require you to pay for your communication with them, like a toll call, except a collector can call you on your cellphone. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).

What You Can Do If a Debt Collector Violates Washington Law

If you think a debt collector has violated Washington law, you can take one or more of the following actions.

Sue the Debt Collector

You can sue the debt collector in court. If a court agrees that the debt collector violated the Washington Collection Agency Act, then it may award you damages as well as reasonable attorneys' fees. Also, keep in mind you can also sue a collector for violating the federal FDCPA. You might be able to recover monetary damages, attorneys' fees, and more. (15 U.S. Code § 1692k).

If you need help filing a lawsuit, talk to a debt relief lawyer.

File a Complaint With the Washington State Department of Licensing

If you believe a debt collector has violated Washington law, you can file a complaint with the Department of Licensing.

File a Complaint With the Washington Attorney General's Office

You can also file a complaint with the Washington State Office of the Attorney General at www.atg.wa.gov. But the Attorney General's office might not investigate the complaint because it receives thousands of complaints each month.

Contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Trade Commission

In addition, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about an issue with a debt collector. After you submit a complaint, the CFPB will work to get you a response from the collector, typically within 15 days.

Also, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the FDCPA. You can contact the FTC online at FTC Complaint Assistant.

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