What Are My Rights Against a Debt Collector?

Find out how to fight back against unscrupulous debt collection agencies.

By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

When you're facing off against a debt collector, it's important to know the rules the collector must follow. Just understanding your rights, isn't enough. Debt problems need a game plan, and yours will likely depend on whether you're dealing with a case of misidentification, or if you just can't pay the bill.

Know Your Rights: What a Debt Collector Can't Do

When you first fall behind on a bill, your creditor will likely contact you and ask you to bring your account current. After some time, the account will get transferred to a debt collector.

That's when the federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA) will apply. Under the FDCPA, a collector cannot:

  • Speak with others about your debt. The exception is that the collector can talk with the original creditor, a credit reporting agency, or your lawyer.
  • Inappropriately call you. Collectors can't call at inconvenient times, such as before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., or at work if you aren't allowed such calls.
  • Harass you. Harassment includes threatening harm or violence, using foul language, or calling repetitively.
  • Give false or misleading information. The collector is prohibited from misrepresenting the amount that you owe, claiming to be someone other than a collector (such as the IRS), or falsely stating the consequences of failing to pay (for instance, the creditor can't tell you that you'll go to jail).
  • Engage in unfair practices. The collector can't charge more than allowed by state law, deposit postdated checks early, wrongfully threaten to take your property, or communicate with you by using a postcard (your information could be read by others).

You should be aware that a collector can contact others to try to find you (but still can't discuss your actual debt). To prevent this type of skip tracing activity, consider giving the collector your contact information.

A creditor that violates the FDCPA and causes you harm is subject to paying you monetary compensation and fines if you sue civilly and win.

Know the Process: Steps the Collector Might Take

When you fall behind on a debt that's secured by collateral (property, such as your house or car, that you pledge against the debt), your creditor can use foreclosure or repossession tactics to recover the property, sell it, and apply the funds to your balance. In such a case, the caller will likely be the original creditor, not a bill collector, and you'll need to look into options other than those offered in this article.

If you didn't put up collateral—for instance, if the debt in question is a credit card payment or a cell phone bill—the collector can call or write to you, but that's about it. A creditor can't take the following actions until it files a lawsuit and gets a money judgment against you:

There are exceptions, however. For instance, the government has the right to take these types of steps if you owe taxes or student loan debt.

Know Your Plan: Developing a Strategy

Your options will depend on whether you owe the debt. For instance, it might (or might not) be worth fighting a legitimate debt in court. When making the decision, consider the amount of money and time you have to spend on the case, as well as whether you have a defense.

If you don't owe it, however, you'll likely want to take action.

When You Owe the Debt But You Can't Pay

If you owe a debt, paying it in full, or negotiating it down to a lower amount might be your best bet. If you don't have the funds, you have other options:

  • Ignore it. This option works for people who are judgment-proof. You can stop calls by asking the collector to do so in writing.
  • Discharge (wipe out) the debt in bankruptcy. In many cases, you can get back on your feet by discharging credit card debt, utility bills, and personal loans (such as payday loans) in bankruptcy.
  • Wait for the statute of limitations to pass. The "statute of limitations" is the number of years that the collector has to sue you for a money judgment. Once that period passes, the collector will not be able to get a judgment against you.

Understand that a creditor might sue you even if the statute of limitations has run; however, it's less likely. In such a case, you'll want to file a motion with the court objecting to the lawsuit (consult with a local attorney).

When It's Not Your Debt

If it isn't your debt, you'll likely want to dispute it. Here are a few suggestions that might work in your favor:

  • Write a letter disputing the debt. You have 30 days after receiving a collection notice to dispute a debt in writing. The FDCPA requires the collector to verify the authenticity of the debt with the original creditor and send you proof of the same.
  • Dispute the debt on your credit report. If the wrongful debt appears on your credit report, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus online. The creditor will have a limited amount of time to verify the validity of the debt.
  • Lodge a complaint. See "Where to Get Help," below.
  • Respond to a lawsuit. If you're sued, it's important to file a response in the limited amount of time given. If you aren't sure how to do so, seek legal help.
  • Hire an attorney. Once you've hired a lawyer, the collector must speak with your counsel.

Where to Get Help

You can file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or through a consumer protection office in your state. (Many states have more stringent laws governing debt collectors.) For help finding federal or state agencies, go to USA.gov.

Consulting With an Attorney

This general information does not address all aspects of the collection process and is not legal advice. You should meet with a lawyer for an evaluation of your particular case.

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