If you use credit cards, owe money on a personal loan, or pay on a home mortgage, you are a “debtor.” If you fall behind in repaying your creditors, or an error is made on your accounts, a “debt collector” may contact you. In either situation, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires that debt collectors treat you fairly. It also prohibits certain methods of debt collection. But the law does not erase any legitimate debt you owe. Here is some more information about your rights with collection agencies. For more information, see our extensive article on The Debt Collection and Debt Buying Industry.
Frequently Asked Questions about Debt Collection
Here are some of the most common questions about debt collection practices and your rights.
Q: Which debts of mine are covered?
A: Personal, family and household debts. This includes money owed for the purchase of an automobile, for medical care or for charge accounts.
Q: Who are debt collectors?
A: Those who regularly pursue the collection of debts owed to others. This includes attorneys who collect debts on a regular basis.
Q: How may debt collectors legally contact me?
A: In person, by mail, telephone, telegram or fax. However, debt collectors may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.—unless you agree. Also, collectors cannot contact you at work if they know your employer disapproves.
Q: Can I stop debt collectors from contacting me?
A: Yes—by writing a letter and telling them to stop. Once the collectors receive your letter, they may not contact you again. But they can notify you of some specific action intended by the debt collectors or creditors.
Still, sending this a letter does not remove your responsibility for the debt. The debt collectors or your original creditors can still sue you.
Q: Can debt collectors contact anyone else about my debt?
A: If you have an attorney, they must contact him, rather than you. Without a lawyer, collectors may contact other people—but only to get your home address, phone number and work address. Usually, they cannot contact these people more than once. Collectors cannot tell anyone besides you or your attorney about the debts.
Q: What must debt collectors tell me about my debt?
A: Within five (5) days after they first contact you, the collectors must send a written notice. It will detail the amount owed and the name of the creditor(s)—plus, actions to take if you think you do not owe the money.
Q: Can debt collectors continue to contact me if I believe I do not owe money?
A: Collectors may not contact you if, within 30 days after receiving written notice, you send the collection agency a letter stating you do not owe money. But collectors can renew collections if they send proof of the debt, such as a copy of a bill.
Q: What types of debt collection practices are prohibited?
A: 1) Harassment – Debt collectors may not harass, oppress or abuse you or others they contact, nor use misleading statements. For example, they may not:
- Use threats of violence or harm
- Publish a list of consumers who refuse to pay their debts (except to a credit bureau)
- Use obscene or profane language
- Use the telephone to annoy someone repeatedly
2) False statements – Debt collectors may not use misleading statements.For example, they may not:
- Falsely imply that they are attorneys or government representatives.
- Falsely imply that you have committed a crime.
- Falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit bureau.
- Misrepresent the amount of your debt.
- Indicate that papers being sent to you are legal forms when they are not.
- Indicate that papers being sent to you are not legal forms when they are.
- Indicate that you will be arrested if you do not pay your debt.
- Indicate that hey will seize, garnish, attach or sell your property or wages, unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so, and it is legal to do so.
- Indicate that actions, such as a lawsuit, will be taken against you, when such action legally may not be taken, or when they do not intend to take such action.
Debt collectors also may not:
- Give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit bureau.
- Send anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it is not.
- Use a false name
- Use unfair practices
- Collect amounts greater than your debt, unless state law permits such a charge
- Deposit a post-dated check prematurely
- Deceive to make you accept collect calls or pay for telegrams
- Take or threaten to take your property unless this can be done legally
- Contact you by postcard
Q: What control do I have over payment of debts?
A: If you owe more than one debt, payments must be applied to the debt you specify. Debt collectors may not apply a payment to any debt you believe you do not owe.
Q: What can I do if I believe debt collectors have violated the law?
A: You may sue them in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you may recover money for damages, plus amounts up to $1,000—even recover court costs and attorney’s fees. Also, a group may sue debt collectors and recover damages up to $500,000—or one percent of the collector’s net worth, whichever is less.
Q: Where can I report a debt collector for an alleged violation?
A: Report any of these problems to your state Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. Many states have their own debt collection laws, and your Attorney General’s office can help you determine your rights.
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