8 Ways Bad Debt Collectors Try To Get You To Pay

...And How to Fight Back

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Falling behind on bills is stressful. But when a bad debt collector breaks the law and is abusive or harasses you, things can quickly go from bad to worse.

A strong federal law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), protects consumers against unfair, deceptive and abusive debt collection tactics. However, even though this law has been around since the 1970’s, some collectors try to “push the envelope” or even ignore the law all together. When they do, you can stop them. We’ll tell you how in a moment.

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Get in touch with a consumer law attorney if you experience any of these problems. The attorney can likely help you at no out-of-pocket cost to you. Learn more.

#1: Calling you on your cell phone AFTER you specifically requested "Do Not Contact Me On My Cell Phone."

If you tell a debt collector you don’t want to be called on your cell phone, the debt collector’s continued calls to that phone may violate the FDCPA. (In fact, you can tell a debt collector to stop contacting you on your cell phone, home phone or at work.) The best way to stop the calls is to send a letter via certified mail asking the debt collector to stop calling you at all telephone numbers for all debts you allegedly owe now or may owe in the future. 

In addition, certain types of collection calls on cell phones specifically may also violate the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which regulates when and how a debt collector can place automated calls to you.  If a debt collector is calling you in violation of the TCPA, you can recover damages of $500 - $1500 per violation.

Be sure to read our article about robocalls to cell phones if you have received collection calls on your cell phone.

#2: Disclosing to a third party that you owe a debt.

This includes everyone except your spouse. Debt collectors are allowed to contact third parties in order to try to find out how to locate you. Once they have that information, calls to third parties must stop. And, collectors are not allowed to discuss your debt with a third party (except your spouse) unless that person is a cosigner on the debt or a joint account holder.

#3: Calling you at work when you specifically told them "Do Not Contact Me at Work"

If you tell a debt collector that you cannot receive collection calls at work, the calls there must stop. Period. (It’s always a good idea to follow up in writing so you have proof.)

#4: Using profane or abusive language.

Debt collectors are not allowed to use abusive or profane language when they are talking with debtors. Some collectors have crossed this line by using racist language, telling debtors to turn to prostitution to pay their debts, or by threatening to humiliate them publicly. These tactics are not allowed under the law and should not be tolerated.

#5: Asking you to pay more than you owe on the original debt you incurred.

A debt collector cannot add interest or fees to a debt unless (a) the original contract between the debtor and the original creditor (for example, a credit card agreement), or (b) state law allows them to do so. Some collectors add charges to the debt and attempt to justify them as "collection fees" or "interest" hoping that the consumer won’t know any better. If a debt collector has added interest or other fees to a debt it claims you owe, ask for an explanation as to basis for those charges. If you feel you don’t owe those amounts, consult a consumer protection attorney. Most will be happy to help you figure out if have a claim against the debt collector at no cost to you.

#6: Calling you repeatedly.

Although the FDCPA doesn’t spell out how many times a collector can call you in a day, or a week,  it’s always a good idea to keep a record of the calls you receive. (Our free worksheet can make this easy to do). If you think the calls may be excessive, talk with an attorney.

#7: Making false statements or misrepresentations.

There are a number of ways debt collectors may misrepresent the debt or make false statements:

  • Stating someone is legally responsible for a debt when they are not. For example, saying a parent must pay their adult child’s debt even though they didn’t co-sign for it; or telling a relative they must pay their deceased relative’s debt even if they are not legally responsible for it.
  • Threatening to sue a consumer when in fact the debt collector has no intention of suing on the debt.  For example, a debt collector trying to collect a $50 debt most likely would not actually sue the consumer, although the debt collector may threaten to do so.
  • Misrepresenting the amount of the debt owed.  Sometimes a debt collector will send a letter claiming one amount is owed, and then in a phone conversation demand a different amount.
  • Threatening to sue a consumer for a debt that is outside the statute of limitations.
  • Stating that a consumer must pay a debt that was discharged in bankruptcy.

#8: Threatening to sue you, garnish your wages, send a sheriff to your home, serve you with a legal summons, etc. 

  • Debt collectors can only threaten to sue if they have the legal ability to do so (They are law firms, for example) and they intend to take that step.
  • Debt collectors can’t threaten to take money from your paycheck (garnish your wages) or bank account but leave out the fact that before they do, they must sue you and then get a court judgment to do so. And, they can’t threaten to take your unemployment money, disability income, child support or some other source of income that is protected from seizure by law.

How to Stop Bad Debt Collectors

You can fight back! Here’s what to do:

Step One: Make sure you are not dealing with a debt collection scammer. Learn how to spot debt collection scams and check out a collection agency here.

Step Two: If you are talking to a legitimate collection agency (and not a scammer) and you believe that the company may be breaking the law, contact a consumer law attorney.  You may be entitled to damages. Don’t worry if you don’t have money to pay an attorney.  Typically, you do not have to pay the attorney unless the attorney recovers money for you.  If the attorney achieves a settlement or judgment for you, his or her fees will be paid from the damages the debt collector has to pay to you.

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Step Three: If, for some reason, you don’t want to contact an attorney, or the attorney doesn’t feel you have a strong case, you can still file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and/or your state attorney general’s office about a bad debt collector. This is important because if these agencies see patterns of complaints about particular companies, they may step in and take action against those firms. File a complaint with the CFPB here.

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