If you use credit cards, owe money on a personal loan, or are paying on a home mortgage, you are a "debtor." If you fall behind in repaying your creditors, or an error is made on your accounts, you may be contacted by a "debt collector."
You should know that in either situation, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 –1692p, (FDCPA) requires that debt collectors treat you fairly by prohibiting certain methods of debt collection. Of course, the law does not forgive any legitimate debt you owe.
This page answers commonly asked questions about your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
What debts are covered?
Personal, family, and household debts are covered under the Act. This includes money owed on a personal credit card account, for the purchase of an automobile, for medical care, or your mortgage. The FDCPA doesn’t cover debts you incurred to run a business.
Who is a debt collector?
A debt collector is any person, other than the original creditor, who regularly collects debts owed to others. Under a 1986 amendment to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, this includes attorneys who collect debts on a regular basis.
How may a debt collector contact you?
A collector may contact you in by letter, email, telephone, telegram, text message or FAX, as long as they follow the rules and disclose that they are debt collectors. No matter how they communicate with you, it’s against the law for a debt collector to pretend to be someone else — like an attorney or government agency — or to harass, threaten or deceive you.
However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient or unreasonable times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if they’re told (orally or in writing) that you’re not allowed to get calls or if the collector knows that your employer disapproves.
Can you stop a debt collector from contacting you?
If a collector contacts you about a debt, you may want to talk to them at least once to see if you can resolve the matter – even if you don’t think you owe the debt, can’t repay it immediately, or think that the collector is contacting you by mistake.
You can stop a collector from contacting you by writing a letter to the collection agency telling them to stop. Make a copy of your letter. Send the original by certified mail, and pay for a “return receipt” so you’ll be able to document what the collector received. Once the agency receives your letter, they may not contact you again except, with two exceptions:
- A collector can contact you to tell you there will be no further contact.
- The agency may notify you if the debt collector or the creditor intends to take some specific action, like filing a lawsuit.
Sending such a letter to a debt collector you owe money to does not get rid of the debt, but it should stop the contact. The creditor or the debt collector still can sue you to collect the debt.
May a debt collector contact anyone else about your debt?
If an attorney is representing you about the debt, the debt collector must contact the attorney and may not contact anyone other than your attorney. If you do not have an attorney, a collector may contact other people – but only to find out your address, your home phone number, and where you work. Collectors usually are prohibited from contacting third parties more than once. Other than to obtain this location information about you, a debt collector generally is not permitted to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney.
What must the debt collector tell you about the debt?
Within five days after you are first contacted, the collector must send you a written notice “validation notice” telling you the amount of money you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money.
May a debt collector continue to contact you if you believe you do not owe money?
If you send the debt collector a letter stating that you don’t owe any or all of the money, or asking for verification of the debt, that collector must stop contacting you. You have to send that letter within 30 days after you receive the validation notice. But a collector can begin contacting you again if it sends you written verification of the debt, like a copy of a bill for the amount you owe.
What types of debt collection practices are prohibited?
Harassment. Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse anyone. For example, debt collectors may not:
- use threats of violence or harm against the person, property, or reputation;
- publish a list of names of people who refuse to pay their debts (but they can give this information to the credit reporting companies);
- use obscene or profane language;
- repeatedly use the telephone to annoy someone;
- telephone people without identifying themselves;
- advertise your debt.
False statements. Debt collectors may not use any false statements when collecting a debt. For example, debt collectors 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 reporting company;
- misrepresent the amount of your debt;
- misrepresent the involvement of an attorney in collecting a debt;
- indicate that papers being sent to you are legal forms if they are not;
- indicate that papers being sent to you are not legal forms if they are.
Debt collectors also may not state that:
- you will be arrested if you do not pay your debt;
- they 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;
- actions, such as a lawsuit, will be taken against you, which legally may not be taken, or which they do not intend to take.
Debt collectors may not:
- give false credit information about you to anyone;
- send you anything that looks like an official document from a court or government agency when it is not;
- use a false name.
Unfair practices. Debt collectors may not engage in unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. For example, collectors may not:
- try to collect any interest, fee, or other charge on top of the amount you owe, unless the contract that created your debt – or your state law – allows the charge;
- deposit a post-dated check early;
- take or threaten to take your property unless it can be done legally;
- contact you by postcard.
What control do you have over payment of debts?
If you owe more than one debt, any payment you make must be applied to the debt you select. A debt collector may not apply a payment to any debt you believe you do not owe.
Can a debt collector garnish my bank account or my wages?
If you don’t pay a debt, a creditor or its debt collector generally can sue you to collect. If they win, the court will enter a judgment against you. The judgment states the amount of money you owe, and allows the creditor or collector to get a garnishment order against you, directing a third party, like your bank, to turn over funds from your account to pay the debt.
Wage garnishment happens when your employer withholds part of your compensation to pay your debts. Your wages usually can be garnished only as the result of a court order. Don’t ignore a lawsuit summons. If you do, you lose the opportunity to fight a wage garnishment.
Can federal benefits be garnished?
Many federal benefits are exempt from garnishment, including:
- Social Security Benefits
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits
- Veterans’ Benefits
- Civil Service and Federal Retirement and Disability Benefits
- Military Annuities and Survivors’ Benefits
- Federal Emergency Management Agency Federal Disaster Assistance
Federal benefits may be garnished under certain circumstances, including to pay delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, or student loans.
What can you do if you believe a debt collector violated the law?
You have the right to sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, the judge can require the collector to pay you for any damages you can prove you suffered because of the illegal collection practices, like lost wages and medical bills. The judge can require the debt collector to pay you up to $1,000, even if you can’t prove that you suffered actual damages. You also can be reimbursed for your attorney’s fees and court costs. A group of people also may sue a debt collector as part of a class action lawsuit and recover money for damages up to $500,000, or one percent of the collector’s net worth, whichever amount is lower. Even if a debt collector violates the FDCPA in trying to collect a debt, the debt does not go away if you owe it.
What should I do if a debt collector sues me?
If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you to collect a debt, respond to the lawsuit, either personally or through your lawyer, by the date specified in the court papers to preserve your rights.
Where can you report a debt collector for an alleged violation?
Report any problems you have with a debt collector to your state Attorney Generals office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.. Many states have their own debt collection laws that are different from the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Your Attorney Generals office can help you determine your rights under state law.
See related Dealing with Debt and Credit Repair pages.
For More Information
To learn more about credit-related issues, visit MyMoney.gov, the U.S. government’s portal to financial education.