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The phone rings. As soon as you see the number, you start to sweat. Oh no, it’s them again . . . the debt collector (cue scream).
If you’re afraid to answer the phone because you’ve got a debt collector hounding you, you’re not alone. More than one in four people who use credit have at least one debt in collections.1 But thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you have more power than you think. Knowing exactly what debt collectors can and can’t do will help you take charge of your situation. Here’s how to get those collectors and your debt out of your life for good!
What Is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) set some strict rules on how debt collectors can talk and behave when they’re trying to collect money from you.
Now, here’s the thing: The FDCPA doesn’t stop debt collectors from asking for the debt you owe them (that’s totally legal). But it does keep them from doing some real shady stuff to get your money—like lying, threatening or manipulating.
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Think of it like a wrestling match—if a debt collector is in one corner and you’re in the other, then the FDCPA is basically the referee. A debt collector may talk a lot of smack, but there’s only so much they can actually do without breaking the law. You just have to know the rules.
But to really understand how the FDCPA works, you first need to know what kinds of debt can go into collections and who has the right to collect it.
What kinds of debt can go into collections?
It doesn’t matter what type of debt you’ve got—credit cards, student loans, mortgages, medical bills, car loans, utility bills. If you miss a payment, you run the risk of your debt going into collections. But what does that mean?
Well, let’s say you get a bill in the mail from a hospital because of a recent surgery. If you don’t pay on the bill within a certain amount of time (anywhere from 30 to 180 days after it’s due), it becomes delinquent debt. At that point, your creditor (the person or business you owe money to) figures they aren’t likely to get any money from you. They may hire a debt collector to pressure you into paying. Or they might go ahead and sell your debt to a collection agency for cheap because they’d rather get some money than nothing at all. In either case, you’d have to answer to a debt collector.
Who is a debt collector?
A debt collector is someone who (surprise, surprise) collects debts for a living. Calling people up and demanding money is literally in their job description. A collection agency buys your debt in the hopes they can strong-arm you into coughing up cash, even if it’s not the full amount you owe. And unless you know how to put debt collectors in their place, they typically stop at nothing to get your money.
But keep in mind that debt collectors and creditors are not the same thing. A creditor is the person or business you originally owe money to (like a credit card company, a hospital or your landlord). A debt collector works for a third party, usually a collection agency. It’s important to know that the FDCPA rules only apply to debt collectors, not creditors. The exception would be if a creditor uses a different business name to try and collect your debt—that would automatically make them a third-party collector, and they would have to follow the FDCPA guidelines. But creditors aren’t completely off the hook. They still have to stay away from unfair or deceptive practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act.2
How Does the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Protect Me?
Collectors have one mission and one mission only—to get your money. And they’re not above stooping to some pretty low levels to make you pay. But there are ways to defend yourself against these bullies. So, put on your boxing gloves—we’re about to lay down the ground rules of debt collecting.
It limits communication between you and collectors.
Debt collectors will try any way they can to get in touch with you. Calls, texts, emails, letters—you can pretty much expect everything short of them renting an airplane and writing a message in the sky. But thanks to the FDCPA, there are certain restrictions on how debt collectors can communicate with you.
When: Debt collectors aren’t allowed to contact you at inconvenient times. Well, there’s never really a convenient time for a debt collector to call, but under the FDCPA, they can only do so between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. your time. So, unless you work the night shift and you’ve given a debt collector permission to contact you outside those set hours, they can’t sneak in any late-night phone calls.
Where: Debt collectors can’t contact your workplace if you’re not allowed to receive calls while on the job. If they do call you at work, you can demand they stop (we’ll explain exactly how to do that in a minute).
And while it’s highly unlikely, there’s still the off chance a collector could visit you in person. If you ever do find a debt collector on your doorstep, remember they have to stick to that 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. time frame, and they can only ask you to pay what you owe. That’s it. You don’t have to give them any money or even talk to them. In fact, you shouldn’t make any negotiations in person—it’s best to do business in writing, not on your front porch.
If a collector shows up in person and you feel like they’re harassing you (we’ll talk more about that in another section), you’re more than welcome to slam the door in their face or call the police.
Who: If you give a debt collector the cold shoulder, it’s only a matter of time until they start calling your friends, family members, neighbors, or even that one guy from your high school math class. Their goal is to try to shame you into handing over money.
But here’s the deal: They can tell someone they’re looking for you and ask if they know how to get in touch with you. But debt collectors can’t talk about your debt with anyone other than you or your spouse. That means they can’t give anyone details about your debt, say you’re in debt, or even identify themselves as debt collectors. And they can’t call these people more than once.
How: Like we said before, debt collectors will try all the ways to get in touch with you and remind you of your debt. There are the obvious methods like calls, texts, emails and letters in the mail. But it stops there. Collectors can’t tag you on social media, put your name in the newspaper, or even send postcards (because then the mail carrier would know your debt details). And if you tell a debt collector to contact you through your attorney, they have to stop bothering you.
How to get a collector to stop contacting you: If you’re tired of the constant calls, you can ask for a cease and desist, which means the debt collector can no longer try to get in touch with you. The best way to do this is to send a letter by certified mail and get a return receipt so you have proof the collector got the message. At that point, a debt collector can only reach out to confirm that they’ll stop contacting you or to say they’re suing you.
But listen, if you’re in debt and you have the money, you should pay it. Immediately. Ignoring a collector isn’t going to solve your problem—it only delays it. In fact, sending a cease and desist might actually lead to a lawsuit because then a collector has no other options to try to get you to pay.
So before you cut off a debt collector completely, take charge of the conversation and find out the exact details of what they say you owe. That way, if you have the money, you can pay and get them out of your life.
It forces collectors to prove your debt is due.
You probably already know there are a lot of debt collection scams out there. Even if you do have delinquent debt, that doesn’t mean every person who calls is a real debt collector. You need to be sure a collection claim is legit before you give anyone your money. Under the FDCPA, a collector has to send you a written validation letter within five days of first contacting you to provide proof you have debt due. This letter must include:
- The name of the creditor (the person you owe money to)
- The amount you owe
- Instructions on how you can repay the debt
- What to do if you think the debt isn’t yours
If you don’t dispute the debt (argue it’s not yours) within 30 days of receiving the validation letter, then the collection agency will assume you’re claiming the debt as yours. You can also ask for more information about the debt within those 30 days, and the collector has to give it to you.
But here’s the main takeaway: Don’t do any business with someone saying they’re a debt collector until you have a validation letter. Remember—you want everything in writing!
It stops collectors from using abusive language or behavior.
Sugar, spice and everything nice—that’s not what you should expect from a debt collector. There’s always a chance you’ll get a collector who has the personality of Mary Poppins, but more likely, you’ll be dealing with somebody who couldn’t care less about how your day is going. And more times than not, they’ll use threats and harsh language to scare you into doing what they want. But their bark is usually bigger than their bite. So no matter what they say, here’s a list of things debt collectors can’t do:
Harass You: This may seem broad, but under the FDCPA, harassment includes calling multiple times in a row to try to annoy you, threatening harm or violence, and listing your debt for sale. Bottom line: If you feel like you’re being bullied, it’s probably harassment.
Use Profane Language: Collectors can’t curse or use foul language when they talk to you. So if it’s something they wouldn’t say in front of their grandma, go ahead and hang up or tell the collector to wash their mouth out with soap.
Threaten Arrest or Lawsuit: This one can be pretty scary. But here’s the truth: A debt collector can’t arrest you for delinquent debt. Period. And unless they have an actual court order, they can’t threaten to sue you either.
Threaten Wage Garnishment or Repossession of Property: Collectors know exactly what buttons to push to make people panic. But they can’t take money out of your paycheck without permission from a judge (unless you owe child support, taxes or federal student loans). And they also can’t threaten to come take your car or other possessions (unless they’re collateral for a loan).
Collect Payment Unfairly: Debt collectors aren’t allowed to add any interest, random fees or other charges to the amount you owe if it’s not part of your original lender contract. And if you send them a postdated check because you’re planning to pay later in the month, they’re not allowed to deposit it ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try—so don’t send a check unless you’re ready for the money to be taken out of your account immediately. And never send more than one check at a time.
Lie: Debt collectors can’t lie about who they are—they have to be up-front and identify themselves as debt collectors. They also can’t lie about what might happen to you if you don’t pay your debt, like saying you’ll lose your house if you owe them for medical bills.
And collectors have to be honest about your debt details, like how much you owe, who you owe money to, or if your debt has passed the statute of limitations. But just because collectors can’t lie doesn’t mean they have to answer your questions. So if you get the go-around from a collector, it’s safe to assume they’re avoiding the truth.
What if a Collector Breaks the Law?
Even with the FDCPA, debt collectors still toe the line or break the rules all the time. And they mostly count on you not knowing your rights so they can get away with it. But if you’ve got a debt collector constantly harassing you or if you’re still getting calls even after you’ve sent a cease and desist letter, you can take action.
You can file a complaint against a debt collector with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Also, if you’ve been scammed by someone posing as a debt collector or you’re getting calls even though you’re on the National Do Not Call Registry, you can report them to the Federal Trade Commission. And if you feel like a debt collector really stepped over the line and things are getting out of hand, talk with a lawyer to see if you should take legal action against a collection agency.
But remember, just because a debt collector broke the law or you get a collector to stop calling, it doesn’t mean your debt disappears. You’re still legally responsible for paying it back. And you should—ASAP!
Tips for Dealing With Debt Collectors
With the FDCPA guidelines in mind, here are some things to remember when you’re dealing with debt collectors:
Debt collectors are trained to make you feel upset, mad or guilty. But even if a debt collector is yelling or throwing insults at you, there’s no need to stoop to their level. Take a deep breath and tell them you won’t be answering any questions until they talk to you like a human being. And of course, hanging up is totally allowed!
Validate the debt collector and debt.
Don’t do any business with someone until you’re 100% sure the collector and the debt they’re asking about is legit. Remember that validation letter we mentioned earlier? Yeah, you definitely want that.
Get everything in writing.
Dave Ramsey says you can tell debt collectors are lying if their mouth is moving. They may try to sweet-talk you or act like they’re doing you a favor, but don’t take their word as truth. Never, ever give someone money until you’ve got a full agreement in writing. And be sure to save copies if they ever try to come after you again later.
Don’t give them access to your bank account.
This one is super important! Debt collectors may ask you to give them your checking account or debit card info to make it “easier” for you to pay your debt. But trust us, they will clean you out, no matter what they say. And it’s almost impossible to get that money back once it’s gone. So, be smart when sending payment to a debt collector.
How to Get Rid of Debt Collectors for Good
Yes, getting debt collectors off your back is nice, but you know what’s even better? Kicking debt out of your life once and for all! If you want to be sure you never have to worry about a collector harassing you for money ever again, then you need to focus on paying off your debt as soon as possible and then staying out of debt. Here are some ways to make that happen:
Take care of necessities first.
Even when you’ve got collectors breathing down your neck, your priority should be looking after you and your family. So before you do anything else, make sure your Four Walls are taken care of: food, utilities, shelter and transportation. Paying off debt can wait until you’re able to feed everyone, keep the lights on, and put gas in the tank. Don’t be afraid to tell a debt collector that you’ve got nothing to give them until you get your household in order.
If there’s one thing debt collectors are, it’s persistent. Time for you to channel some of that same intensity into paying off your debt. Got a car you can’t afford? Sell it. What about a second job or a side gig? If you don’t have one, get one. Getting out of debt isn’t something you do by accident. It’s going to take some lifestyle changes and hard work. But you can do it! The more aggressive you get about throwing money at your debt, the sooner you’ll be out of the collection agencies’ clutches.
Stick to a plan.
If you’re tired of fending off debt collectors and struggling to make payments each month, you need a solid game plan to help you get back on your feet. With Financial Peace, you’ll learn exactly how to pay off all your debt and save for expenses so you never have to borrow money again! It’s time to take yourself off the debt collectors’ call list for good—get started today.