FTC Report on Debt Collection Complaints

With the credit crunch in full swing, many consumers are receiving calls from debt collectors. While most collectors are just trying to do their jobs, some are so eager to get paid (often with a commission or bonus) that they will go to just about any length to collect past due consumer debts -- even violate the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. Consequently, complaints about debt collectors are on the rise according to government regulators and the Better Business Bureau. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission reports that in 2010 it received more complaints about the debt collection industry than about any other industry.

Here are the top complaints about debt collectors that consumers reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2010:

1. DEMANDING A LARGER PAYMENT THAN IS PERMITTED BY LAW

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from misrepresenting the character, amount, or legal status of a debt. What does that mean? It means they cannot inflate a debt with fees or interest unless that is permitted under state law. It also means they can’t hound a consumer over a debt he or she doesn’t owe at all, or pursue a debt that a consumer got discharged in bankruptcy.

In 2010, 33,122 consumers complained about this type of conduct.

Tip: You have the right to ask a debt collector to validate in writing a debt that it is trying to collect from you that you – but you must do so within thirty days of when the collector contacting you for the first time about the debt. Put your request in writing and send it by certified mail, return receipt requested, keeping a copy for your files.

2. HARASSING THE ALLEGED DEBTOR OR OTHERS

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors may not harass consumers to try to collect a debt. Among other things, this means collectors cannot call consumers repeatedly, threaten them, or use profanity or racial slurs when talking to consumers. Yet, the FTC reports that of the complaints they received in 2007 many complained about debt collectors who:

  • Harassed them by calling repeatedly or continuously
  • Used obscene, profane or otherwise abusive language
  • Called them before 8:00 a.m., after 9:00 p.m.
  • Used or threatened to use violence if they failed to pay the money the debt collectors were trying to collect from them.

In 2010, 54,147 consumers complained about this type of conduct.

Tip: Keep detailed written records of every conversation you have with a debt collector. You can use the free Collector Contact Worksheet available on this website. Your records will be invaluable if you decide to file a lawsuit against the debt collector.

3. THREATENING DIRE CONSEQUENCES IF A CONSUMER FAILS TO PAY A DEBT

Debt collectors cannot threaten to take action they don’t intend to take, or don’t have the legal authority to take.

Typically, a debt collector must sue a consumer, win the case and obtain a judgment against a consumer before he can garnish the consumer’s wages or seize his or her property in order to collect a past due debt, for example. And debt collectors cannot warn consumers they will lose their jobs or go to jail if they don’t pay. Even warnings about ruining a consumer’s credit rating may be illegal if the debts are too old to be reported to credit reporting agencies.

In 2010, 27,554 complaints were received by the FTC about this type of conduct.

4. MAKING IMPERMISSIBLE CALLS TO A CONSUMER’S PLACE OF EMPLOYMENT

Under the FDCPA, a debt collector may not contact a consumer at work if the collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer’s employer prohibits such contacts. In 2010, though, 17,008 consumers complained about receiving calls at work from debt collectors.

Tip: If you tell a debt collector not to contact you at work, he must stop doing so immediately. Follow up in writing, and if the debt collector continues to call you when you are the job, get in touch with a consumer law attorney.

5. REVEALING ALLEGED DEBT TO THIRD PARTIES

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors can contact other people about your debt only to locate you. If they already know how to find you, then calling other people is illegal. Even when they do contact your friends, relatives, neighbors or coworkers to find you, they cannot discuss your debt. In fact, the only people they can discuss your debt with are co-signers, your spouse or your attorney.

The FTC points out that a collector who discusses a debt with someone else is usually trying to pressure a consumer into paying the debt by embarrassing or intimidate her. Unfortunately this particular debt collection tactic may jeopardize a consumer’s personal and work relationships, and even put the consumer’s job at risk.

5. FAILING TO VERIFY DISPUTED DEBTS

When you are first contacted by a debt collector, you have thirty days to request written verification of the debt. If you dispute the debt in writing, the collector must stop trying to collect the debt until he provides the written verification. (If the debt has been reported to the credit reporting agencies, the collector must report that it is being disputed.)

According to the FTC, many consumers complained that collectors ignored their written disputes, sent no verification, and continued their collection efforts.

6. CONTINUING TO CONTACT A CONSUMER AFTER RECEIVING A "CEASE COMMUNICATION" NOTICE

You can send a letter to a debt collector asking him to stop contacting you about a debt. If you do, the debt collector cannot contact you again except to notify you if it’s about to take legal action against you.

In 2010, 7,343 consumers complained to the FTC that collectors ignored their “cease communication” notices.

Tip: While a cease communication letter can be helpful in some cases – if the debt is too old, or you are confident you don’t owe it, for example – it’s not a good idea to send such a letter just because you don’t want to deal with the debt. If you do, you may leave the collector with no recourse but to file a lawsuit against you.

This article is protected by copyright 2008-2009 by Gerri Detweiler and Mary Reed. All rights reserved.

Updated November 2011  

Read the 2011 FTC Report on Debt Collection Complaints

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