If you live in Washington and have debt in collection, you should learn about your rights. You have protections from debt collectors under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and Washington state law.
The federal FDCPA regulates the methods debt collectors can use to contact you, how often they can contact you, and the tactics they may use. State law requires debt collectors to get a license and prohibits some types of collection activities.
Read on to learn more about federal and state debt collection laws applicable to Washington.
The Washington Collection Agency Act regulates debt collection activities in Washington. This set of laws is in the Revised Code of Washington under Chapter 19.16.
Both the federal FDCPA and state collection agency laws regulate debt collectors in Washington.
The FDCPA applies to every state and 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 get a license, prohibits unfair and deceptive actions, and regulates how a collector can communicate with you. Similar to the FDCPA's debt validation requirement, it gives consumers the right to request that a debt collector verify a debt.
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 must also get a license before attempting to collect from Washington residents. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.110).
You can check the DOL website to find out whether a particular debt collector has a license. If the DOL suspects that a debt collector is unlicensed, it may investigate. The DOL routinely fines unlicensed debt collectors.
The definition of a "collection agency" (debt collector) under Washington law is similar to the FDCPA's definition. It includes debt collectors but not original creditors (unless using a fictitious name). The law also applies to debt buyers. So, debt buyers and others who meet the definition of a collection agency are subject to the Washington Collection Agency Act.
Those who are in the business of collecting debts on others' behalf are considered collectors. But original creditors generally aren't.
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).
A "debt buyer" is a person or business that regularly buys debts from creditors and tries to collect them. Under the federal FDCPA, a debt buyer is considered a "debt collector" for the purposes of the law if it collects debts owed or due to another or the principal purpose of its business is collecting debts.
In Washington, a "debt buyer" is defined as "any person or entity that is engaged in the business of purchasing delinquent or charged-off claims for collection purposes, whether it collects the claims itself or hires a third party for collection or an attorney for litigation in order to collect such claims." (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.100).
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).
Washington law limits the methods 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.
The first time a debt collector sends you a letter, notice, form, or anything else, it must include the following:
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. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.250).
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 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 when 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. The federal 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 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 debt collector can't call or send text messages more than twice a day if it knows it is contacting you on a cell phone. 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 cell phone. (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).
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).
Debt collectors also can't take the following actions.
If a debt collector operates without a license, the penalty is a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment of not more than one year or both. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.430).
In addition, if the collector violates by using prohibited conduct, it can't recover any interest, service charge, attorneys' fees, collection costs, delinquency charge, or any other fees or charges otherwise legally chargeable to the debtor on its claim. (Wash. Rev. Code § 19.16.450).
If you think a debt collector has violated Washington law, you can sue the debt collector in court. If a court agrees that the debt collector violated the Washington Collection Agency Act, it may award you damages as well as reasonable attorneys' fees.
Also, you can 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.
If you think a debt collector has violated Washington law, you can file a complaint with the government.
You can also file a complaint with the Washington State Office of the Attorney General at www.atg.wa.gov. However, the Attorney General's office might not investigate the complaint because it receives thousands of complaints each month.
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.
Even though you're being sued, you can still try to settle the debt. If the collector violated federal or state laws when trying to collect from you, you could have leverage in debt settlement negotiations.
Learn what to do if a bill collector uses abusive tactics.
Read about what you should and shouldn't do when a debt collector calls.
Get tips on how to tell the difference between a debt collector and a scammer.
If you need help dealing with an aggressive debt collector, figuring out what option is best for handling your debts, negotiating a settlement, or responding to a lawsuit for nonpayment of a debt, consider consulting with a debt relief lawyer.
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.