Know Your Rights if Debt Collectors Come Calling

You do have rights when it comes to debt collection. Here's what you need to know.

by NEA Member Benefits

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Key takeaways

  • 70 million Americans were contacted by debt collectors in 2016.
  • The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act governs debt collector dos and donts and consumer rights.
  • Debt collection was the largest source of consumer complaints to government agencies in 2016.
  • Consumers should file complaints against debt collectors who break the rules.

Janice had always been careful with her money. She knew it was smart to pay her credit cards in full and on time every month. But after she got laid off from work, a few bills went unpaid and before she knew it, collection agencies were calling. Janice felt like she had failed and she wasn’t sure what to do.

Unfortunately, Janice has plenty of company. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) estimated that close to 70 million Americans had been contacted about a debt collection in 2016. And collection calls tend to generate lots of bad feelings all around. In 2016, debt collection was the largest source of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, and also one of the leading sources of complaints to the CFPB. 

You may owe money, but you have rights, too

Even if you fall so far behind in paying your bills that you start getting collection calls, you still have certain rights thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Knowing what the debt collector can and cannot do will keep you from feeling powerless and help you forge a plan to get out from under your debt.

Here are answers to a few common questions about debt collection practices.

  • How and when can a collector contact me? A debt collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, or fax. However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree to such times.
  • Can they call me at work? Yes, but if you tell the collector in writing that your employer does not want them to contact you at work, the contact must stop. 
  • Can they harass me? A collector may not use threats of violence or harm, use obscene or profane language, or repeatedly use the telephone to annoy you. They can’t suggest that you’ve committed a crime or that you’ll be arrested if you do not pay your debt, or pretend that they are an attorney or are a government representative if they are not. 
  • Is there any way to stop collection efforts? You can write a letter to the collector within 30 days of first being contacted telling them to stop. Once the collector receives the letter, they may not contact you again except to say there will be no further contact, or to notify you that the debt collector or the creditor intends to file a lawsuit. This action does not make your debt go away. If you no longer have contact with the collection agency, it’s harder for you to negotiate a repayment plan, so think twice about ceasing all contact. 
  • Can they tell others about my debt? A debt collector may contact other people, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Typically, they may only contact a third party once, and in most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney (if you have one) that you owe the debt. 
  • What if I don’t think I owe the debt? You are entitled to a verification of the debt. Make this request in writing within 30 days after first being contacted. This confirmation must be sent to you in writing and include the amount of money you owe, and the name and address of the creditor. Verification may help you determine if you have grounds for disputing the debt. It’s not unusual for debt collectors to have very little information about the debt they are trying to collect or they may have incorrect information. 
  • Can they continue to contact me after I dispute the debt? Collection efforts may not continue if, within 30 days after you receive the written notice, you send the collection agency a letter stating you do not owe the money. However, a collector can renew collection activities by providing you with proof of the debt.

If you’re contacted by a debt collector who you feel is violating provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Abuses can result in fines for the collection agency, but equally important, reporting such violations can save others from being taken advantage of. You can also submit a complaint to the CFPB.