When you have a debt that goes to collections, it can feel as though debt collectors rule your life until you pay up. Thanks to the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA), though, there are rules that debt collectors must follow when contacting you about repayment. Read on to learn what debt collectors can't do, so you know how to defend yourself against unethical behavior.
1. Call you after hours
Think debt collectors can call you at all hours of the day? Think again. The FDCPA mandates that debt collectors can't call you after 9:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m. unless you tell them that they can. You can give them permission to call after hours if you can't speak with them during the work day.
2. Harass you
Debt collectors have the right to try to collect on the debt that you owe. However, they don't have the right to harass you into repayment. This means no yelling, no threats, no profane language and no irritating you with excessive phone calls.
3. Lie to you
Harassment isn't always just how someone talks to you -- it can also lie in what they say. Debt collectors are not allowed to lie to you about the debt that you owe or what can happen to you if you don't repay it. You can find a detailed list of "false or misleading representations" that can occur and that aren't allowed on pages eight through 10 of this PDF.
4. Call you at work if your work doesn't allow calls
It's not unheard of for a debt collector to try to contact someone at their place of employment (sometimes repeatedly). However, the FDCPA restricts this activity and mandates that a debt collector can't call you at work if you're not allowed to receive calls there.
That said, debt collectors need to know your employer's policy. If a collector calls you at work and you tell them that you're not allowed to receive those types of calls while there, they must not do it again.
5. Communicate with you instead of your attorney if you have one
Another activity that debt collectors can't engage in once they're aware of it is call you if you're retaining an attorney. If a collector calls you, you first need to tell them that you've obtained legal counsel and then share your attorney's name and contact information with them. Unless your attorney is unresponsive to the debt collector, they are the only person that the collector should call.
6. Try to collect more than you owe and other 'unfair practices'
According to the FDCPA, "a debt collector may not use unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt." These means are what the FDCPA call unfair practices, and they include actions like trying to collect more than you owe, illegally taking your property and more.
If a debt collector is doing this to you, read pages 10 and 11 of this PDF to compare their behavior to the unfair practices outlined by the FDCPA.
7. Successfully sue you for time-barred debt
An unpaid debt can eventually become time-barred after a certain amount of time, meaning that the statute of limitations on it has expired. A debt collector can't successfully sue you for repayment once that happens.
When a debt becomes time-barred depends on the type of debt that you owe and the state that you live in -- the statute of limitations differs in each state and for each debt type. Some kinds of debt, like federal student loans, are exempt from this law.
Even though a debt collector can't sue you for repayment once a debt is time-barred, you shouldn't ignore them if they try. If a court date is set, simply show up and present proof that the debt's statute of limitations has expired. Keep in mind, however, that if you've recently made a payment on an old debt, it's no longer considered time-barred and a debt collector can sue you for repayment.
What to do if these things happen to you
It's not always easy to figure out how to deal with a debt collector, which is why it's so important to remember that you have rights. If a debt collector has engaged in any of the above practices with you, you should report them immediately.
The Federal Trade Commission says that you should report debt collectors who violate the FDCPA to them, as well as to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and your state attorney general's office. You can order a free copy of the FDCPA here if you want to do more research.