Debt collectors have a reputation—in some cases a well-deserved one—for being obnoxious, rude, and even scary while trying to get borrowers to pay up. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted to curb these annoying and abusive behaviors. Even so, some debt collectors flout the law. Here are five tactics that debt collectors are specifically forbidden from using.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal law prohibits certain practices by debt collectors.
  • Even if you owe money, debt collectors aren’t allowed to threaten, harass, or publicly shame you.
  • You have the right to order them to stop contacting you, and they must comply.
  • If there’s a mistake, and you really don’t owe the debt, there are other steps you can take.

1. Pretend to Work for a Government Agency 

The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from pretending to work for any government agency, including law enforcement. They also cannot claim to be working for a consumer reporting agency.

A 2014 incident in Georgia shows exactly what debt collectors are not supposed to do. The owner and six employees of Williams, Scott & Associates were arrested for allegedly accusing people of fraud and saying they would be arrested and face criminal charges for not repaying their debts.

The debt collectors also allegedly misrepresented themselves as working under contract for federal and state government agencies, including the Department of Justice and the U.S. Marshals.

The company operated nationwide from 2009 through May 2014 and called itself Warrant Services Association

2. Threaten to Have You Arrested

Collection agencies cannot falsely claim that you have committed a crime or say you will be arrested if you don’t repay the money they say you owe.

First of all, the agencies cannot issue arrest warrants or have you put in jail. Furthermore, failing to repay a credit card debt, mortgage, car loan, or medical bill in a timely manner doesn’t land you in prison. 

That said, if you receive a legitimate order to appear in court on a matter related to a debt and you don’t show up, the judge could issue a warrant for your arrest. And, if you fail to pay a court fine related to your debt, or refuse to pay taxes or child support, you could go to jail.

5 Things Debt Collectors Are Forbidden To Do

3. Publicly Shame You

Debt collectors are not permitted to try to publicly shame you into paying money that you may or may not owe.

In fact, they’re not even allowed to contact you by postcard. They cannot publish the names of people who owe money. They can’t even discuss the matter with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney.

Debt collectors are permitted to contact third parties to try to track you down, but they’re only allowed to ask those people for your address, home phone number, and place of employment. In most cases, they may not contact those people more than once.

4. Try to Collect Debt You Don’t Owe

Some debt collectors will knowingly or unknowingly rely on incorrect information to try to get money out of you.

The creditor you originally owed the money to may have sold your debt to a collection agency, which in turn may have sold it to another collection agency. A mistake somewhere along the way could mean that the collector contacting you has incorrect information. 

Or, the agency might be trying to collect a debt from you that has already been discharged in bankruptcy or even one that is owed by someone else with a similar name.

Within five days of first contacting you, a debt collector must send you a written notice stating how much you owe, to whom, and how to make your payment. You might have to prompt them to do this.

If you aren’t sure whether you owe a debt, send a letter to the collector via certified mail with a return receipt asking for more information. Be careful not to assume any responsibility for the debt.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides sample letters to debt collectors that you can use to ensure you don’t say the wrong thing or give out more information than necessary.

5. Harass You

The law lists specific ways in which debt collectors are not allowed to harass you. They are not permitted to:

  • Threaten you with violence or harm
  • Use obscene or profane language
  • Call you repeatedly
  • Call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. without your permission
  • Call you at work, if you forbid it in writing
  • Contact you at all if you tell the collector, in writing, to stop contacting you altogether or to contact only your attorney.

Even if you take that last step, there are still some circumstances that allow debt collectors to contact you again: They can contact you to let you know they will no longer be contacting you or to tell you that a lawsuit has been filed against you.

If you receive a court summons for a lawsuit regarding your debt, don’t ignore it. An unscrupulous debt collector might fabricate such a document, or it might be legitimate.

If you get a summons, look up the court’s contact information online (not on the notice you were sent) and contact the court directly to confirm that the notice is accurate. Don’t use the address or phone number on the document you receive.

One Big Exception to These Rules

There’s an important exception to the FDCPA: In-house debt collectors aren’t subject to it. For example, if you are delinquent on your Macy’s credit card bill and Macy’s calls you directly, it doesn’t have to follow the rules described above.

Most in-house collectors go after debts that are only a few weeks or months delinquent. After that, the original creditor usually hires a collection agency to collect on its behalf or sells your debt to a debt buyer who gets to keep what it collects.

These two types of collectors are subject to the FDCPA.

How Do You Report a Debt Collector Who Has Violated the Rules?

The Federal Trade Commission suggests contacting it, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and your state attorney general’s office. “Many states have their own debt collection laws that are different from the federal laws,” it notes. “Your state attorney general’s office can help you determine your rights under your state’s law.”

Does the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Apply to Business Debts?

No, according to the CFPB, it “applies only to the collection of debt incurred by a consumer primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. It does not apply to the collection of corporate debt or to debt owed for business or agricultural purposes.”

Is There a Statute of Limitations on Debts?

That depends on the type of debt and the laws in your state. Where statutes of limitations apply, they are usually between three and six years, the CFPB says. However, even after the period has expired, the CFPB adds, debt collectors can still “try to get you to pay the debt by sending you letters or calling you as long as they do not violate the law while doing so.”

The Bottom Line

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) lays out specific rules that debt collectors must follow and prohibits certain abusive practices. However, not all debt collectors go by the rules. If a debt collector comes after you, know that you have rights. And if the debt collector violates those rights, you can report them to the authorities and even sue them.

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