You’re avoiding phone calls, throwing envelopes in the trash before even looking at them, constantly feeling stressed and worried that they’re going to show up at your house or, worse, start calling your work, your family…
No, you’re not cheating on your spouse. You’re dealing with debt collectors.
Here’s the thing: 1 in 3 Americans have debt in collections. You are not alone
More importantly, you have rights. Just because you owe someone money doesn’t mean you suddenly lose all freedom, and it doesn’t mean debt collectors can do whatever they want to you. Many of the things you fear when it comes to your debt may not be plausible.
There are clear laws outlined by the Federal Trade Commission in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) that debt collectors must follow. For every tactic they’re allowed to employ in order to collect your debt, you have associated rights that force them to follow certain limitations and regulations.
It’s important to note that the FDCPA covers all personal, family, and household debt. The only debt that is not covered by the FDCPA is debt that you incurred as part of running a business.
If you currently have debt in collections, it’s important to understand what these laws are so that you’re aware of your rights and protections. So, what can debt collectors legally do to you?
- Debt collectors can call you at home, on your cell, and even at work.
Debt collectors are legally allowed to call you at any number associated with your name, be it your home phone, your cell phone, or your work phone.
Your rights: Debt collectors cannot call you before 8:00 am or after 9:00 pm according to your time zone. They cannot call you an unreasonable amount of times (over and over again on a daily basis). Also, they cannot legally contact you at work if they’ve been told (either orally or in writing) that you’re not allowed to receive calls there.
You may request that a debt collector stop contacting you. However, you should talk to them first to see if you can work out an arrangement or get more information about the debts that you owe. Also, just because they can no longer contact you does not mean you’ve been relieved of your debt. The creditor can still sue you.
If you still decide you want the collector to stop contacting you, you must tell them in writing. Send your letter via certified mail with a return receipt that will document when the collector has received your letter. After that, they may only contact you to let you know there will be no further contact, or to let you know that they are going to take specific legal action.
- Debt collectors can contact you through email, letter, and text message.
In addition to calling you, debt collectors are also legally allowed to email you, send you letters in the mail, and even send you text messages.
Your rights: Debt collectors are never allowed to threaten, harass, or deceive you. They are required by law to disclose that they are debt collectors in any contact that they have with you. If a debt collector is calling or emailing you pretending to be someone else, that is illegal, and you should seek legal assistance. Also, all letters must be appropriately covered and sealed to protect your privacy, and they cannot send letters that appear to be court orders or legal documents if they are not.
- Debt collectors can discuss your debt with your spouse.
Debt collectors are allowed to discuss your debt with your spouse and, if you have one, your attorney, in addition to you.
Your rights: Aside from your spouse and your attorney, it is illegal for debt collectors to discuss your debts or disclose any information regarding your account to any other 3rd party. This includes your family members and employer. However, they can contact other people to get more information on you such as your address or contact information.
- Debt collectors can call your employer to verify your employment status.
Although debt collectors cannot disclose any information regarding your accounts, they can call your employer to ask if you still work there and ask for your contact information.
Your rights: Debt collectors cannot discuss your debt with your employer, or even reveal that you owe money. They also cannot call you at work if you’ve told them not to.
- Debt collectors can sue you.
Debt collectors do have the legal right to sue you to collect the money you owe. They must send you a court summons. If this happens, do not ignore it, or you will lose the chance to fight in court. If they win, the court can allow them to garnish your wages.
If a debt collector does successfully sue you, and you do not pay the court-ordered amount on each payment due date, the debt collector can…
- Garnish your wages above a certain amount
- Take money from your bank account (unless it is protected in the form of certain government benefits)
- Take your property
Your rights: Debt collectors cannot threaten to sue you if they do not plan to. They cannot lie or be deceiving, meaning they can’t say that they’ve sent you legal papers or court orders if they haven’t. They cannot threaten to take your benefits money, either. Although federal benefits can be garnished under certain circumstances (delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, and student loan), most federal benefits are exempt from garnishing, including social security, veterans benefits, federal retirement and disability, military annuities, and federal disaster assistance.
What do I do if a debt collector has broken the law?
If your debt collector violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you have the right to sue within one year after the act was committed.
You could potentially collect damages that were caused by the debt collector’s practices, perhaps in the form of lost wages or medical costs. Even if you can’t prove damaged, the court can force the collector to pay you up to $1,000, and you can potentially get your legal fees reimbursed.
If you think a debt collector may be violating the law, you can contact the Federal Trade Commissions, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or your own state’s Attorney General’s office.