Collection Agencies: Understand Your Rights as a Consumer

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Over the last two years and now with the holiday season in full swing, many people have fallen behind on everything from credit card to car loan to mortgage payments. When that happens, businesses often sell their delinquent receivables to a debt collection company.

While it can be frustrating and scary to fall behind in payments, when calls from collection agencies start, it adds a new level of stress. Don’t panic. Instead, understand what rights you have as a consumer, learn what collection agencies can and cannot do, then take steps to resolve the issue. 

Debt Collection Process Rules in Place to Protect Consumers 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in the United States. The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices when trying to collect debt.

The FDCPA considers anyone who regularly collects debts owed to others as a debt collector. This means collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts, and companies that buy debts and then try to collect them are all covered.

The FDCPA applies to personal, family, and household debts, including money you owe on credit cards, auto loans, medical bills, and your mortgage. It does not apply to debts incurred running a business.

When a debt collector calls, they must follow up within five days with a written “validation notice.” This notice must spell out the name of the creditor you owe money to, how much you owe, and how to proceed if you think you don’t owe the money.

You must respond in writing within thirty days of receiving the debt notice to avoid further action or contact by the collector. If you have any proof that the debt has been paid, you must provide it as well. Your letter and any proof disputing the debt, should arrive at the collector’s place of business within thirty days. It is always a good idea when disputing a debt, to send your letter certified mail and require a signature acknowledging receipt by the collector.

You may want to talk to the debt collector at least once to see if you can resolve the issue, but if you decide you do not want the collector to contact you again, document it in writing. Sending a letter does not resolve the debt and will not stop action to collect the debt, but it can affect how the collector communicates with you. If an attorney is representing you regarding the debt, the debt collector must deal with the attorney instead of with you.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) updated the practices bill collectors use when communicating with consumers and what people can do.

What Collectors CAN and CANNOT Do:

  • CAN contact you by phone, letter, email, text message, or social media as long as they identify themselves as debt collectors
  • CANNOT pretend to be someone else, like a government agency or credit reporting company, or use a false company name
  • CAN contact you at work unless you tell them you are not allowed to get calls there
  • CANNOT call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. (unless you agree to it)
  • CAN contact other people about you to find your address, phone number, and place of employment but CANNOT contact them more than once or discuss your debt with them (except for your spouse or your attorney).

The FDCPA goes into detail about more practices that are off limits for debt collectors, including harassment, false statements, and unfair practices. Some specific things they cannot do include:

  • Use threats of violence or harm or use obscene or profane language
  • Publish a list of names of people who don’t pay their debts
  • Falsely claim you have committed a crime
  • Misrepresent the amount of money you owe
  • Lie about whether or not the papers they send you are legal forms or give you something that looks like an official document if it isn’t
  • Tell you that you will be arrested if you don’t pay your debt or say they will seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property unless they are permitted by law to do so
  • Threaten you with legal action if doing so would be illegal or if they don’t intend to actually do it
  • Try to collect any interest, fee, or other charge on top of the amount you owe unless the contract that created your debt – or your state law – permits the charge
  • Deposit a post-dated check early
  • Contact you by postcard or any other means that can outwardly be identified as coming from a debt collector

When to Do When Dealing with a Collection Agency

Keep track of all the calls you receive from a collection agency and save all written statements. Do not give out personal or financial information until you have confirmed that the collection agency is legitimate. If you can work out a deal to pay monthly or reduce your owed debt, get the details in writing. When you pay off your debt, make sure you get and save documentation of the resolved debt.

What Should You Do If a Debt Collect Sues You?

Do not ignore a lawsuit summons. A debt collector can sue you to collect a debt and a court judgement can result in third parties like your bank or employer turning over funds to pay your debt. If you do not show up in court, you are losing your chance to fight garnishment. Make sure you or your lawyer respond to a lawsuit by the date in the court papers.

What Should You Do If a Debt Collector Violates the Law?

If you think a debt collector has broken the law in their dealings with you, you have a year from the violation to sue. Remember that even if the debt collector violates the law, a legitimate debt does not go away.

You can file complaints and reviews of collection agencies at BBB.org and if the collection sounds suspicious or you don’t have any debt, report it to BBB.org/ScamTracker.

There are also government agencies you can go to for help: In the United States, your State Attorney General’s office, the FTC, and the CFPB can help. Many states have their own debt collection process laws and the Attorney General’s office can offer assistance.

Debt collection is also an opportunity for scammers to collect personal information by posing as credit or debt relief services. Learn more about spotting and reporting this type of scam by going to BBB.org/ScamTips.  If you’ve been targeted by a potential scam, help others avoid the same problem by reporting your experience at BBB.org/ScamTracker

Sources: BBB.org, CFPB, FTC: United States Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov – not subject to copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. 403.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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