Aug. 14, 2013 at 1:57 PM ET
Getting a call from a debt collector is something most of us dread. It can be scary at times, but if a debt collector doesn't play by the rules, chances are they’re banking on you not knowing your rights. Don’t let a debt collection agency bully you into anything — learn your legal rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and defend yourself against predatory collectors. If you hear anything like these lines, know that they’re out of bounds and you can lodge a complaint:
1. “Let’s see what your boss has to say about this.”
Debt collectors cannot legally tell or threaten to tell anyone about your debt. They may contact your friends, neighbors, workplace, etc., once in order to locate you, but cannot reveal details about your debt to any third party, and they can’t contact anyone other than you more than once (unless that person gives permission). When it comes to your job, debt collectors are not allowed to threaten your employment, nor garnish your wages without permission of a court.
2. “We're going to have you arrested if you don't pay.”
Debt collection agencies can’t threaten to do anything to you that they have no legal right to do –and that may even include lawsuits if they don't have the legal standing to sue you. They can’t threaten to arrest you or haul you into court because you can't pay your debts. Similarly, threats to have you arrested for "check fraud" are a tip-off that you are dealing with a rogue collector or scammer.
3. “Pay us now, or we're going to ruin your credit score.”
Debt collectors cannot say that your credit report or credit score will be negatively affected if you don’t pay them immediately, and similarly, they cannot misrepresent themselves as working for a credit reporting agency in order to scare you.
4. “I don’t have to tell you that.”
As soon as a debt collector contacts you the very first time, ask for written notice of the debt. Under the law, a collector must provide this notice with the amount of the debt, name of the creditor and statement of your right to dispute the debt, within five days of initial contact. Don’t do anything until you receive confirmation that your debt is real, and they’re not trying to scam you. Debt collectors are also legally required to reveal what company they work for, should you ask. And if you dispute a debt in writing, the collection agency must stop contacting you until it provides written verification of the debt.
5. “I’ll keep calling.”
Collection agencies cannot call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., and if you ask them to stop calling you at work (orally or through written request) they’re legally required to stop. You also have a right to tell the collector to cease contact altogether (or to work through your attorney, if you hire one). Your request to stop contact must be in writing, so make a copy of your letter and send the original via certified mail to know when they’ve received it. Once they have, your debt isn’t gone, but they cannot contact you unless the creditor is taking specific legal action, like filing a lawsuit.
Threats of violence or profanity and abusive language are also all strictly forbidden in these exchanges. If any of the above happens to you, don’t hesitate to take action. You can contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint, or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also file a complaint with your state’s office of the Attorney General, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, online or by phone at (855)-411-CFPB. You also have the right to sue a collector in federal or state court within one year of the violation. In some cases, your best recourse may be to contact a consumer law attorney.
The bottom line:
If you’re not sure a debt collector's threats are legal, speak up. Document what's happening and get help from a consumer law attorney or consumer protection agency.