What You Can Do If a California Debt Collector Harasses You

Learn what you can do if a debt collector violates California collection laws when trying to collect a debt from you.

The Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“Rosenthal Act”) is a California law that prohibits debt collectors and creditors from engaging in abusive or deceptive bill collection practices. If you're a California resident and a collector violates this law, you could:

  • file a complaint with various governmental entities
  • file a lawsuit against the collector in court, and
  • use violations of the law as leverage in settling your debt.

Read on to learn more about each of these options.

Making a Complaint Against a Collector

If you believe a debt collector is harassing you in violation of California law, you can submit a complaint to the California Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Filing a Complaint With the California Attorney General

If you think a debt collector violated the Rosenthal Act, you may file a complaint with the California Attorney General’s office. Although the Attorney General won't sue on your behalf, it uses complaints to learn about misconduct.

The Attorney General’s office also provides helpful information about debt collectors for the public.

Filing a Complaint With the Federal Trade Commission

You may also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC enforces the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (see below), which also prohibits abusive, unfair, or deceptive debt collection practices.

Filing a Complaint With the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

You may also register a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB will forward your complaint to the collector and work to get you a response.

Filing a Lawsuit Against the Debt Collector

You may sue the collector in court. If you win, you can recover any actual damages you incurred because the debt collector violated the law. Also, under California law, if the debt collector acted “willfully and knowingly,” a court can award you an additional $100 to $1,000. Finally, you can get an award of attorneys’ fees. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.30).

Your claim is subject to a one-year statute of limitation. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.30). Also, sometimes, a court will reduce the amount it awards you by the amount that you owe to the creditor.

In most cases, you’ll need a lawyer’s help to file and win a lawsuit; but if you're confident in your knowledge of the law and legal procedures, you may file a suit in small claims court on your own.

Also, be aware that a debt collector isn’t liable for a violation of the law if, within 15 days either after discovering a violation that can be cured, or after receiving a written notice about the violation, the debt collector notifies you of the violation, and corrects it. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.30). Though, if you have actual damages, it’s unlikely that the debt collector can correct the violation.

Using the Violation as Leverage in Debt Settlement Negotiations

If you’re trying to settle debt and the collector violates the Rosenthal Act, you can use the violation as leverage in your negotiations. Collectors know that a lawsuit can be costly to defend and might result in a judgment against them.

Just how much leverage you’ll get from the threat of a lawsuit depends on the strength of your case. If you have strong facts proving a violation—such as many instances of harassing phone calls or the testimony of coworkers who received threatening phone calls—you’ll have much more leverage in your debt settlement negotiations.

Don’t Forget About the Federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) also prohibits debt collectors from engaging in abusive or deceptive bill collection practices. Generally, a debt collector has to comply with both the FDCPA and the Rosenthal Act in California. If a bill collector violates the FDCPA, you might be able to sue and recover damages, including statutory damages of $1,000. (15 U.S.C. § 1692k).

The Rosenthal Act states that its remedies are intended to be cumulative and in addition to any other procedures, rights, or remedies under any other provision of law. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.32). So, conduct in California that also violates the federal statute might result in remedies under both federal and state law. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.17).

Talk to a Lawyer

If the actions of a debt collector violate California law and you’ve suffered damages as a result of these actions, suing the debt collector might give you some real relief. Not only could it stop the harassing phone calls, a Rosenthal Act or FDCPA claim might also allow you to recover for physical, emotional, and monetary damages suffered.

If you think a debt collector has violated the law when trying to collect a debt from you, consider talking to an attorney who can analyze your individual situation and advise you about your rights and options under the law. An attorney might also be able to help you to negotiate a debt settlement.

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