If you have a past-due debt in collections, it can be nerve wracking to deal with debt collectors. Especially if you aren’t sure what your rights are. Fortunately, there are debt collection laws in place to protect you from unscrupulous practices. A big one: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Read on to learn how this law works and what protections it includes.
What Is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a federal law that says what debt collectors can and can’t do. Keep in mind that it applies to third-party debt collection agencies only, and not in-house debt collectors (think: a representative of the billing department for your Macy’s credit card). Even so, many states have their own similar set of debt collection laws to protect consumers, whether they’re dealing with original or third-party creditors.
The FDCPA covers all types of consumer debt, including credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, student loans, mortgages, medical bills and more. Business debts aren’t, though.
13 Important Protections Within the FDCPA
So what, exactly, does the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act say? Here’s a closer look at the main statutes under the law that protect you as a borrower.
1. Disclosure of Purpose at First Contact
The first time you hear from a debt collector, they’re required to explain who they are and why they’re contacting you. At the time of that first contact, or within five days after that date, they are also required to send you a written verification of your debt and explanation of how to dispute it.
2. Disclosure of Identity
Any time a debt collector contacts you, they have to disclose who they are. The collector can’t hide their identity or pretend to be someone else. That includes over the phone, email or even social media, and applies to attorneys and their employees.
3. Debtor’s Right to Dispute Debt
When a debt collector provides that initial phone call or letter explaining your debt, it needs to include specific details to help you determine whether you truly owe it. Those details include:
- The amount owed
- The name of the creditor you owe the money to
- That the collection agency assumes the debt is valid unless you dispute it within 30 days of receiving the notice
- That if you decide to submit a dispute, the collection agency will provide you with verification of the debt
- If you request, the debt collection agency will provide you the name and address of the original creditor
The purpose of providing all of this information is to let you know that you have an opportunity to dispute the debt in question. If you do, the collection agency is required to inform the credit bureaus.
4. Debtor’s Right to Stop Communications
Debt collectors have a reputation for being relentless about getting you to pay up. But you might not realize that if you tell them to stop contacting you, they have to comply. They also have to stop contacting you if you refuse to pay the debt (usually, this is because you’re disputing it).
Your request to halt communication needs to be in writing (the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has a few sample letters you can use, depending on the situation). However, it’s important to know that stopping a collection agency from contacting you doesn’t prevent them from filing a lawsuit.
5. Obligation to Respect Debtor’s Privacy
Your debt is your business, so collection agencies are limited in who they can contact and what types of information they can share. For instance, a collector can contact a family member, but only to find out basic information such as where you live; they can’t say that they are a debt collector or that you owe any money. When it comes to written communication, the envelope, fax, postcard, etc. can’t have any language or symbol indicating that it’s from a debt collector.
Debt collectors are also only allowed to contact you when it’s convenient and suitable. For instance, they can only call you between the hours of 8 am and 9 pm, unless you indicate it’s not a good time. They may also contact you at work unless you ask them not to. And if you’re being represented by an attorney, you can request that all communication goes through them and not you personally.
6. Unfair Collection Practices
Debt collection agencies have to use fair and lawful methods of collecting debts. They can’t tack on extra interest or penalties to the debt (unless the original contract says they can), or cash post-dated checks. They also can’t use physical force or otherwise bully you into paying.
It’s illegal for a debt collector to pretend to be a court, government agency or any other organization in order to garner information about you or pressure you to pay. If the original creditor is contacting you, they aren’t allowed to pretend to be working with a collection agency or any third-party. In general, debt collectors can’t lie about who they are, how much you owe or any other details in order to trick you.
8. Unlawful Threats
Debt collectors are allowed to pressure you to pay up, but they can’t actually threaten you in any way. That includes threats to physically harm you, damage your reputation, report false credit information, have you arrested or increase the amount you owe.
9. Harassment or Abuse
Speaking with a debt collector may not be the most pleasant experience, but the communications should never verge into abusive territory. Certain behaviors, such as calling you nonstop or being exceptionally rude, are considered harassment and aren’t allowed.
10. Profane, Obscene or Abusive Language
Along those same lines, debt collectors aren’t allowed to use profane language, or any other kind of language that would be considered obscene or abusive when communicating with you.
11. Communications to Debtor’s Employer
As mentioned above, a debt collector can contact your employer, but only for very specific reasons:
- To verify your employment
- In an attempt to locate you
- To garnish your wages
- In the case of a medical debt, to find out if you have insurance
The collector can’t state that you owe a debt and can only contact your job as many times as truly necessary. Phone calls should be limited and communication needs to be in writing.
12. Communications to Family Members
Similarly, any communication to family members other than your spouse must be limited. A collector can only contact your family to find out where you’re located, or if your attorney has provided written approval to discuss a debt with a certain person. In the case of a minor, the debt collector is allowed to contact the parent or guardian regarding a debt if they all reside in the same household. And again, they must stop contacting your family if you request it.
13. Communications to Third Parties
Finally, with a few limited exceptions, debt collectors can’t share any information with any third-party in connection with the collection of a debt.
If you’re currently communicating with a debt collector, it can be helpful to have a professional on your side who knows the law and can help you come up with a plan. The Tayne Law Group can help. Call (866) 890-7337 or fill out our short contact form to get a free consultation and learn about your options.