Your Rights When Dealing With a Debt Collector

Concerned woman looking at her phone

Maybe you’ve been down on your luck or maybe you’ve just gone through a terrible cluster of missteps and unfortunate circumstances — a debilitating illness, costly divorce, or job loss, just to name a few.

Whatever the reason, you’ve accumulated debt, weren’t able to make making payments, and they’ve defaulted and have gone to collections. And those seemingly incessant phone calls from debt collectors incite anxiety, fear, and deep feelings of dread.

It’s important to know your rights when dealing with collection agencies. Here’s what you should know when navigating prickly encounters with debt collectors, and how you can protect yourself as a consumer:

Your Basic Rights as a Debtor

This might not come as much of a surprise, but most consumers don’t know much about their rights when debt collectors contact them, explains Gerri Detweiler, co-author of the free Kindle ebook, Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and education director for Nav.

In turn, it makes them vulnerable to threats by both debt collectors and scammers. As Detweiler points out, many consumers don’t know:

  • You have the right to ask a debt collector to stop calling you at work or during a time or place that is inconvenient to you. You have the right to let them know when, where, and what time is most convenient for you to be contacted. If you would like them to stop contacting you altogether, you can also send them a “stop contact” or “cease” letter. If they persist, you have the right to send them another letter.
  • Debt collectors aren’t allowed to engage with you in any way that makes you feel harassed, oppressed, or abused. They can’t use threaten you with violence or the use of profane language.
  • There is a time limit in which a debt collector can successfully sue to collect the debt. This time limit varies by state. And within each state, it can vary depending on the type of lawsuit. “If a debt is ‘time-barred’ or outside the statute of limitations, the debtor can raise that as a defense if they are sued,” says Detweiler.
  • You are most likely not personally responsible for the debt of a loved one who died with that debt. There are exceptions: You might be personally responsible if you were on the account, or were married in a community property state. If there was an estate, the creditor can try to collect from it.
  • Generally speaking, debt collectors aren’t allowed to share information about your consumer debt with other people who aren’t on the account. The one exception would be your spouse.
  • It’s highly unlikely a debt collector who calls you has the power to get you arrested or seize your bank account because you don’t pay them right then over the phone. “Dire threats of serious immediate consequences are usually illegal, or threats by scammers,” says Detweiler.

How to handle threatening correspondence from a debt collector

If you get a call or letter from a debt collector, take a deep breath, advises Detweiler. “It can be scary and intimidating— especially if you know you owe the debt and just don’t have the money to pay it,” says Detweiler.

“But keep in mind, you do have rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a federal law that provides protections if you owe consumer debts. Your state may have additional consumer protection laws as well.”

Beware of Scammers

Scammers often purchase information about old debt for very cheap and try to use that to collect from consumers who don’t know their rights. “Ask the debt collector to send you written verification of the debt,” says Detweiler. If they refuse, you could be dealing with a scammer. “Just because a debt collector knows a lot about you and the debt that doesn’t mean they are a legitimate collector.”

Don’t Feel Pressured to Pay on the Spot

This is particularly important if a debt is several years old or if you have a legitimate dispute about the debt. “If you pay something toward the debt— even a small amount — you may reset the statute of limitations which gives the collector more time to sue you to collect.”

Get It in Writing

Before you pay, you’ll want to verify the debt, recommends Detweiler. If someone calls you claiming to be a debt collector, start by asking them for their name, company, business address, and contact info. That might be enough to discourage them.

Ask for written verification of the debt. Under federal law, you have the right to get a verification of the debt if you send the letter within 30 days of receiving the first notice from the debt collector.

Once you receive it, review it to make sure the amount is correct and that the debt isn’t too old (this is referred to as time-barred, or outside the statute of limitations). “Only after you’ve established that should you decide how to handle it with the collector,” says Detweiler.

Know What You Can Afford

Don’t agree to make payments until you have a realistic plan for handling all your debt, explains Detweiler. “Consumers will sometimes agree to make small payments on a debt to stop a debt collector from contacting them, but the payments are so small they will be paying it off for years, or even decades,” she says. “Or they’ll work out payments on one debt but have others that are piling up.” Before you start making payments, Detweiler recommends talking to a reputable credit counseling agency to work out a complete plan for paying all of your debt.

You might want to consider working with a credit counseling agency on a debt management plan (DMP). With a DMP, the agency negotiates on your behalf to work out a repayment plan. You submit a single monthly deposit to the agency, who then disburses it to your creditors. Through a DMP, your interest rates are often reduced, late fees might be waived, your monthly payments could be lowered, and you should no longer receive calls from collection agencies.

Get Legal Help When Needed

If you’re being sued for a debt, or a collector has obtained a judgment against you, talk with a consumer bankruptcy attorney so you understand your rights. “In some states, a creditor with a judgment can seize funds from your bank account or garnish your wages,” says Detweiler. “A consumer bankruptcy attorney can help you understand how to protect funds you need to pay essential bills.”

Debt collectors calling you non-stop? Money Management International (MMI) can help. Our crew of accredited counselors can inform you of your rights, and offer a few solutions on how you can dig yourself out of debt.

Tagged in Debt collection, Debt strategies, Laws and legal questions

Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based personal finance writer who is passionate about helping creatives with their finances. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Mental Floss, Business Insider, and GOOD. She blogs at heyfreelancer.com.

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