When a debt collector calls, it’s important to know your rights and what you need to do. The FTC enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which makes it illegal for debt collectors to use abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices when they collect debts.
Your credit card debt, auto loans, medical bills, student loans, mortgage, and other household debts are covered. Business debts are not.
No. Debt collectors can’t contact you at inconvenient times or places. They can’t contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree to it. They also can’t contact you at work if they’re told you’re not allowed to get calls there.
Debt collectors can call you, or send letters, emails, or text messages to collect a debt.
Send a letter by mail asking for contact to stop (make yourself a copy before you do). You might want to send it by certified mail and pay for a “return receipt” so you have a record the collector received it. Once the collector gets your letter, it can only contact you to confirm it will stop contacting you, or to tell you a specific action, like filing a lawsuit, will be taken. If you are represented by an attorney, and inform the collector, the collector must communicate with your attorney, not you, unless the attorney fails to respond within a reasonable period of time to the communication from the debt collector.
You might want to talk to the collector at least once, even if you don’t think you owe the debt or can’t repay it immediately. That way you can confirm whether it’s really your debt. If it is your debt, you can find out from the collector more information about it. In talking with a debt collector, be careful about sharing your personal or financial information, especially if you’re not already familiar with the collector.
A debt collector generally can’t discuss your debt with anyone but you or your spouse. If an attorney is representing you, the debt collector has to contact the attorney. A collector can contact other people to find out your address, your home phone number, and where you work, but usually can’t contact them more than once.
A collector has to send you a written “validation notice” within five days of first contacting you. The notice has to say:
You can send a debt collector a letter saying you don’t owe any or all of the money, or asking for verification of the debt. If you send the letter within 30 days of getting the validation notice, the collector has to send you written verification of the debt, like a copy of a bill for the amount you owe, before it can start trying to collect the debt again. You also can get a collector to stop contacting you, at any time, by sending a letter by mail asking for contact to stop.
They can’t harass you. For example, they can’t:
They can’t lie. For example, they can’t:
They can’t engage in unfair practices. For example, they can’t:
Yes. If a debt collector is trying to collect more than one debt from you, it must apply any payment you make to the debt you choose. A debt collector may not apply a payment to a debt you say you don’t owe.
If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you to collect a debt, respond, either personally or through your attorney, by the date specified in the court papers. That will preserve your rights.
Yes, but the collector must first sue you to get a court order — called a garnishment — that says it can take money from your paycheck to pay your debts. A collector also can seek a court order to take money from your bank account. Don’t ignore a lawsuit, or you could lose the opportunity to fight a court order.
Many federal benefits are generally exempt from garnishment, though they might still be garnished to pay delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, or student loans. States have their own laws about which state benefits can be garnished.
Debt collectors have a certain number of years they can sue you and win to collect a debt. It’s called the statute of limitations, and usually begins when you fail to make a payment on a debt. Once it’s over, your unpaid debt is considered “time-barred,” but in some states, you have to raise the age of the debt as a defense to win.
How long the statute of limitations on a debt lasts depends on what kind of debt it is, and the law in your state or the state specified in your credit contract.
Also, under the laws of some states, if you make a payment or provide written acknowledgment of your debt, the clock may start ticking again.
Yes. Even if a debt collector can’t successfully sue you over a time-barred debt, you may still owe it.
Ask the collector when its records show you made your last payment. You also can send the collector a letter within 30 days of receiving a written notice of the debt. Explain why you’re disputing the debt and that you want to verify it. A collector must stop trying to collect until it gives you verification.
Maybe. The statute of limitations for a debt is usually different from the reporting period for a debt on your credit report. In general, negative information stays on your credit report for seven years.
It’s up to you. Consider talking to an attorney before you decide. You can:
You still need to respond. Consider talking to an attorney. If you ignore a lawsuit, the collector could get a court judgment and garnishment against you. Tell the judge the debt is time-barred, and show a copy of the verification notice from the collector or any information that shows the date of your last payment.
Report any problems you have with a debt collector to:
Many states have their own debt collection laws that are different from the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Your attorney general’s office can help you determine your rights under your state’s law.8
You can sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year of the date the law was violated. You can sue for damages, like lost wages and medical bills. If you can’t prove damages, you can still be awarded up to $1,000, plus reimbursement for attorney’s fees and court costs. A group of people suing as part of a class action lawsuit can recover money for damages up to $500,000, or one percent of the collector’s net worth, whichever amount is lower.
Even if a court finds a debt collector violated the FDCPA in trying to collect a debt, you still owe the debt.