8 things debt collectors may not do

If a debt collector's nonstop calls have got you down, you may not have to grit your teeth and bear it. Even if a debt is legitimately yours, overzealous attempts to collect it could be against the law.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) makes it illegal for debt collectors to engage in abusive or deceptive practices when trying to collect money owed on delinquent credit card accounts, car loans, medical bills, mortgages and other debts. And there is a good chance the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will improve consumer rights even more.

The government agency requested public feedback on debt collection practices. The ideas floated in the CFPB's 2014 request for comments include requiring collectors to tell you when a debt is too old to be the basis of a lawsuit in your state. The agency may raise the standards for documents that collectors have about an account, which currently can be lost or degraded as debts are passed from one debt buyer to another.8 things debt collectors cannot do

Think you've encountered a debt collector who has gone too far? Here are some common practices that should raise a red flag.

1. Debt collectors may not harass you.
Calling multiple times a day about a debt or contacting you at unusual times is considered harassment. A debt collector cannot call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you explicitly tell them it's OK. A debt collector also cannot call you at work if you tell them not to. Finally, if you instruct a debt collector in writing to stop calling you, he or she can only contact you to let you know about an action being taken against you, such as a lawsuit.

2. Debt collectors may not make idle threats.
If a debt collector threatens an action, he or she must be able and willing to follow through with it. Debt collectors cannot threaten to sue you when they know for a fact they will not or the debt cannot be pursued in court, says Alexis Moore, a consumer advocate and author of "Cyber Self-Defense." They also cannot say they will repossess your property or garnish your wages unless they are permitted by law to do and have plans to follow up on the threat. Debt collectors can never threaten bodily harm.

3. Debt collectors may not withhold pertinent information.
Debt collectors must not only tell you who they are and how you can reach them, but they must tell you how much you owe. A debt collector must also send what's called a 'validation notice,' which is a written document with that same information within five days of first contacting with you. The letter allows you to dispute the debt within 30 days if it is not yours. If you choose not to dispute the debt within that 30-day timeframe, the collector then assumes the debt is yours and can continue its efforts to collect that debt.

If you are not sure the debt is yours, you need to compose and mail a debt validation letter to the collector requesting further proof that the debt is truly yours. Once a collection agency receives  your letter (which should be sent certified mail with a return receipt request), it cannot continue to contact you until it sends you the information you requested.

4. Debt collectors may not misrepresent themselves.
Nobody wants to go to court, and debt collectors often use the specter of litigation or a fear of breaking the law to scare consumers into paying up. If a debt collector claims to be an attorney or to represent the government, look up the number for the law firm or government agency they claim to represent and call them back to verify.

5. Debt collectors cannot shame you into paying up.
If a debt collector threatens to expose you for being delinquent on a payment, he or she is bluffing. Debt collectors cannot contact you via postcard where others can see what you owe or feature anything on an envelope that indicates that you owe a debt. Debt collectors also cannot publish your name to any public lists of people who owe money. Finally, debt collectors can't contact your employer or family members to inquire about your debt, though debt collectors can contact others to find out your address or phone number.

6. Debt collectors may not threaten to throw you in jail.
Not only do consumers have to be on the lookout for illegal debt collection practices, but "there are a lot of scammers out there masquerading as legitimate bill collectors," says Steve Katz, founder of Debtorboards.com, an online community that discusses debt collection practices.

In fact, the average financial loss reported by victims of debt collection scams between October 2013 and June 2014 was $1,748, according to Fraud.org. A common tactic among scammers is to threaten jail time in order to get money from their victims. However, under the act, debt collectors are prohibited from threatening to arrest you if you don't pay up.  

7. Debt collectors may not use abusive language.
While debt collectors have the right to go after money that is legitimately owed to them, they must be respectful. If a debt collector uses profanity or obscene language, not only are they violating the act, but they may be a fraudster.

8. Debt collectors may not overcharge.
A debt collector cannot charge you interest or any other fees that are not explicitly allowed under the contract the debt was created under. Debt collectors also can't deposit a post-dated check early.

How to fight back
If you get a call from a debt collector that violates your rights, relay that you're familiar with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and that may stop any offenses from being repeated, suggests Jonathan Sasse, chief marketing officer of PrivacyStar, the developer of a smartphone app that helps consumers report abusive debt collection practices. If it doesn't, keep copies of all written correspondence and write down each time a collector calls you, as well as notes about the conversation. Then report these incidents to the CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission or your state's attorney general.

If you want to take it further, contact the National Association of Consumer Advocates to find an attorney who specializes in debt collector abuse. A bill collector can be required to pay you up to $1,000 per violation.

When it comes to debt collection, education is power. "There are laws out there that protect people," says Sasse, "and some stiff penalties for breaking those rules."

See related: 5 steps to dispute debt caused by ID theft, stop abusive collection, 10 tips for dealing with debt collectors, collection

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Updated: 01-23-2018