By Gerri Detweiler. Updated December 22, 2020
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. The debt collector may even have to pay you damages if it breaks the law.
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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 be illegal because they 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 these calls is to send a letter (with tracking so you have proof it was received) 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. Or you can ask them not to call you at specific numbers.
But a letter is not required. You can tell the debt collector it is inconvenient for you to get calls at a certain number (or all phone numbers) and ask them to stop contacting you that way.
You can also ask debt collectors to stop contacting you in any way. This is often referred to as a "cease contact" or "cease and desist letter." Learn more about cease contact letters here.
Debt collectors are allowed to contact third parties (such as neighbors, coworkers, relatives other than your spouse, etc.) only in order to try to find out how to locate you. They cannot discuss your debt with other people.
Once they have located you, calls to third parties must stop. Again, 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.
Again, this includes everyone except your spouse or a cosigner.
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.)
You can use our free Debt Collection Worksheet to keep track of your conversation with debt collectors.
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.
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.
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.
Note: new CFPB rules that go into effect November 30, 2021 will limit calls or voicemails to 7 in 7 days, and one conversation per 7 days. Again these go into effect in 2021.
There are a number of ways debt collectors may misrepresent the debt or make false statements:
These are just examples; there are other ways collectors make false statements. If in doubt, don't hesitate to get a free case evaluation from a consumer law attorney.
A debt collector may report a collection account to your credit reports but it cannot threaten to "ruin your credit forever" because there is a specific time limit that collection accounts may be reported. In addition, a debt collector cannot threaten to report a debt that is too old to appear on your credit reports.
Finally - and this is a fairly common problem - if you dispute the debt the debt collector must update any account it has reported to indicate the debt is disputed. If it does not, it may be breaking the law.
If you dispute a debt with the debt collector because you think it is inaccurate in any way (wrong amount, you don't owe it etc.) the debt collector should let the credit reporting agencies to which it has reported the debt that it is disputed. If it does not, the collector may be breaking the law. Learn how to check collection accounts on credit reports here.
If you think a debt collector may be breaking the law, 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. Most scammers are located out of the U.S. and it can be difficult to stop them.
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, get a free case evaluation from a consumer law attorney. The attorney may be able to help you at no out of pocket cost to you.
Don’t worry if you don’t have money to pay the attorney. The law firm to which we refer you does not charge anything for an evaluation, and you will not have to pay them unless they recover money for you. If the attorney achieves a settlement or judgment for you, his or her fees will be paid by the debt collector or from the money they recover for you.
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.