Fine Print

Can debt collectors come to your house at any time?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act lays out what is appropriate protocol for a debt collector in their collection efforts


Debt collectors can contact debtors during specified hours, and there are also rules for third-party contact.

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Have you ever been contacted by a debt collector? Did you feel that you were being harassed by their efforts?

Reader Kathleen wants to know if there are rules for what hours a collection agency representative can come to a person’s house to serve papers. And what can the representative say to someone else who opens the door?

Not a common practice

First of all, it is not a common practice for a collection agency representative to make a personal visit to a debtor’s home. With the prevalence of modern communication technologies, it is only too easy to communicate without meeting in person.

Maybe this comes about if you haven’t been responsive to previous attempts to communicate via other channels. For instance, you might have ignored phone calls or emails.

Mike Sullivan, a personal finance consultant at Take Charge America, a Phoenix-based nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency, observes, “There are seldom papers to be served even when a collection agency sues. Most jurisdictions have rules about notification of a hearing, and it wouldn’t usually require a visit from the collection agency.”

A personal visit could also be a sign that the collection agency is trying to intimidate you, which could be a violation of the law.

Sullivan says, “Subjects of inappropriate contact should be aware that they can take the collection agency to court and consumers often prevail. And this can usually be done in small claims court without hiring an attorney.”

See related:  Consumer advocates say CFPB’s new debt collection proposal is inadequate

Appropriate protocol

In any event, if you do happen to be visited by a collection agency representative, they do have to follow certain rules.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a federal law that went into effect in March 1978, lays these out. Regarding time of contact, the FDCPA says that a debt collector may not communicate with a debtor at any “unusual time.”

The law considers the time period between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. in a debtor’s time zone to be an appropriate time to contact you. Thus, contact outside of these hours would fall in the “unusual” time period.

Generally, a debt collector also may not contact you during a time they know is not convenient for you. For instance, if you inform them that you work at night and sleep from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., they cannot contact you during this period.

And if your employer frowns on your receiving debt communications at work, and the debt collector is aware of this, they may not contact you at work either. Additionally, if you notify them in writing that you don’t want to be contacted about the debt, they would have to comply with your request.

The FDCPA also states that the debt collector may contact the consumer or their attorney in their collection efforts. The debtor, or a court, could also give the debt collector permission to contact specified third parties.

And if the collector is not able to locate the debtor, they could ask a third party for the debtor’s home address, phone number and employer information. The debt collector should provide their name and state that they are confirming the debtor’s location, or updating their location information.

The debt collector also may not name the collection agency they work for, or disclose that the debtor owes money, unless they are specifically asked about this.

See related:  Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Mistaken identity

If the person who opens the door is not the debtor, they don’t have to volunteer any information to the collector, other than to politely ask them to update their records and state they are not the person the agency is looking for.

According to Sullivan, “The agency has the burden of proof and they frequently pursue people with similar names or people living at an address once used by the debtor, hoping to find the debtor. And continued efforts to collect from the wrong person certainly constitutes harassment and invites a complaint in court.”

Debt collector harassment might be based on the strategy that if the debtor is bothered enough times, they will pay just to put an end to the nuisance of the collection effort.

Kathleen, be aware that the FDCPA also allows legal remedies for debtors when debt collectors don’t comply with its provisions. You could be awarded any actual damages you sustain from the collector’s failure to follow the law, and potentially punitive damages.

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