How the FDCPA Provides Protection against Debt Collectors
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is the key piece of legislation that regulates debt collectors. What do you do when a debt collector sends you a letter or calls to say how much he or she misses your payment? Whether you’re feeling helpless or angry, knowing the rules that apply is important — specifically, what collectors really can and can’t do.
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to attempt to collect from you.
The FDCPA covers most personal, family, and household debts, such as personal credit card accounts, car loans, medical bills, and mortgages. Notably, it doesn’t cover debts incurred in running a business.
Control the contacts
A collector may contact you at a reasonable time, such as after 8 a.m. or before 9 at night. If these times don’t work, you get to define what a reasonable time is. But you must allow collectors to do their job, so you can’t be too restrictive. A collector also may not contact you at work if you tell the collector that you’re not allowed to get calls there.
Be sure to follow up any conversations or agreements in writing as soon as possible. Doing so documents what you and the collector have agreed to and helps eliminate miscommunications in a stressful environment.
Got an attorney? Let the collector know. After you do, the collector must contact the attorney and only the attorney, rather than you or anyone else. If you don’t have an attorney, a collector has the right to contact others to get your address, home phone number, and place of employment. However, collectors can’t tell anyone else why they’re calling or that they’re debt collectors.
Finding out about the debt
You have the right to receive a validation notice from the collector within five days of contact that tells you how much money you owe. The notice must include the name of the creditor to whom the collector claims you owe the money and procedures to follow if you don’t think you owe the money.
If you don’t owe the money or an error has been made, send the debt collector a letter (certified mail with a return receipt) within 30 days of receiving the validation notice and state that you’re disputing the debt. If you’re not 100 percent sure whether you owe the money, ask for verification of the debt. Until the debt is verified, the law prohibits further collector contacts.
Collectors can begin contacting you again after they send you written verification of the debt, like a copy of a bill for the amount you owe.
Stop a collector from contacting you
If you decide after being contacted by the collector that you don’t want to hear from the collector again, you have the right to tell the collector (in writing) to stop contacting you. Here’s how.
Send an original copy of your demand by certified mail, and pay for a return receipt so you can document that the collection company received it. Keep copies of everything you send or receive. After the collector receives your letter, the collector may not contact you again. Well, there are two exceptions: The collector may contact you to tell you that no further contact will occur. That’s the law.
Second, the collector may let you know that the collector or the creditor intends to take a specific action as a result of your ending the conversation, such as filing a lawsuit, but only if it actually intends to do so. No idle threats are allowed.
Sending a letter to a debt collector stopping all contact doesn’t get rid of the debt, but it should stop the collector from contacting you.
Spotting prohibited behavior
Debt collectors aren’t allowed to get away with certain behaviors. Here are some highlights, or lowlights, of what a collector may not do:
Harass or threaten you: Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact. They may not threaten violence or harm, publish your name as someone who refuses to pay your debts, use obscene or profane language, or repeatedly call to annoy you.
Lie to you: Debt collectors who lie get in trouble. They can be sued if they pretend to be attorneys, government representatives, or employees of a credit bureau. They also get in trouble if they claim that you’ve committed a crime or lie about the amount you owe. They also can’t lie about whether forms are legal papers or not.
Be unfair: Collectors may not engage in unfair practices. So what’s not fair play? Trying to collect more than what’s due unless the contract that created your debt — or your state law — allows an additional charge; depositing a post-dated check early; or contacting you by postcard to embarrass you with the mail carrier or your family. That’s really not fair!
If a collector violates any of the provisions of the FDCPA, contact your local consumer protection agency, your state’s attorney general, or your lawyer. The first two public resources should be able to stop the abusive or unfair behavior with a phone call or letter. Your attorney may also file suit for damages against the collector/collection agency.
Suing a collector
You can sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year if the collector violates the law. If you win, you can win big. You can be awarded any damages you can prove resulted from the illegal collection practices, like lost wages and medical bills. You also can be reimbursed for your attorney’s fees and court costs.
If a debt collector violates the FDCPA in trying to collect a debt and you win a lawsuit against that collector, the debt doesn’t go away if you owe it. Also, if you lose your suit, you may owe more in fees and costs.