What is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)?

Having a debt in collections can be a huge burden on your finances. Plus, it doesn’t help if collection agents are calling your phone throughout the day, sending letters, and more. It can all feel incredibly overwhelming.

Fortunately, you have protections against unethical and even illegal debt collection practices thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). However, if you don’t know about these protections, you cannot invoke them. In this article, you can get some background on this Act and get familiar with the protections you have as a consumer.

What Is the FDCPA?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was originally passed back in 1978 and was designed to protect consumers from debt collectors that were using unethical practices to collect money. At one time, debt collectors were free to use almost any means imaginable to get debtors to pay up, including threatening them with physical harm. This Act put rules and regulations in place to protect the consumer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for enforcing the FDCPA, as well as other laws. While this Act covers a wide range of regulations, it can be summed up as “limiting how and when debt collectors can contact you, what they can do to get you to pay, and empowering you to dispute debts.”


What Types of Debts Are Protected?

While the FDCPA protects consumers from debt collectors, it does not cover all types of debts nor to all types of debt collectors. For instance, it does not apply to original creditors, only to third-party debt collectors.

Creditors vs. Debt Collectors

Let’s say that you have a credit card balance of $3,000 with XYZ Bank. You’re over your limit and the issuer is charging interest and starting to make calls about your payments because they’re late. They may have even frozen your account.

In this situation, the FDCPA does not apply because XYZ Bank is your original creditor. Now, if XYZ Bank was to sell your debt to a debt collection agency or enlist the services of a debt collection agency to get you to pay, the Act would apply.

What the FDCPA Does and Doesn’t Protect

You also need to understand that the Act only protects consumer debts. It does not play a role in business debts. So, if your business takes out a loan and then defaults, the FDCPA does not apply. It also doesn’t apply to business credit cards and other types of commercial debt.

What are consumer debts, then? Think of your personal student loans, your personal home mortgage, and your personal credit cards. Consumer debt is another way of saying personal debt.


Important Protections Offered by the FDCPA

Now that you know what debts the FDCPA applies to, it’s time to take a look at the protections that it offers. With an understanding of these, you can invoke the Act when a collection agent steps over the line. Make no mistake, agents will push the boundaries and bend the rules. Often, they’ll break the rules if they feel they can get away with it. It’s up to you to defend yourself against these practices.

1. Debt Collectors Have Restrictions on When and How They Can Contact You

First, the Act dictates when and how debt collectors can contact you. This applies to communication methods, but also times of the day.

When Can Debt Collectors Contact You?

Debt collectors are only allowed to contact you between 8 AM and 9 PM. If a collector calls outside those hours, you need to document it and inform them that you’ll be reporting it to the FTC.

It’s also against the law for collection agents to contact you on the job. That’s a big win for consumers. Having bill collectors calling you on the job affects your job performance, but it can also affect job security if your employer becomes concerned about ongoing money problems.

For instance, suppose you’re a bank teller. You end up in financial trouble and max out your credit card. The card issuer turns things over to a collection agency, which then begins calling you at work. How long do you think it would be before you lost your job because your supervisor was concerned that your money troubles posed a security risk to the bank? It wouldn’t be very long at all before you found yourself applying for unemployment.

What Methods Can Debt Collectors Use to Contact You?

Under the FDCPA, you can also opt to communicate with debt collectors by mail only, or not at all if you like. That immediately puts a stop to all phone calls, and if you choose to stop all communications, they cannot even send you letters.

However, it does not stop the collections process, which could lead to legal action, so think long and hard before stopping all communications. If you are struggling with communications, you can choose to tell the collection agent to communicate exclusively with your attorney, which will provide you with a layer of defense if a lawsuit is brought against you.

Who Can Debt Collectors Contact on Behalf of Your Debt?

Finally, the Act prohibits debt collectors from contacting third parties about your debt. That includes more than just your employer. Relatives, friends, in-laws, and others also fall into this category.

2. Debt Collectors are Required to Have Honesty in All Interactions

Debt collectors have a reputation for dishonesty, and it’s not undeserved. These people are paid to try every trick in the book to pressure debtors into paying up (and often into overpaying). However, you have protection under U.S. federal law from dishonest agents.

Debt Collectors Cannot Pose as Someone Else

All collection agents are bound by law to be fully transparent in all collection attempts. What does that really mean, though? Here’s an example:

You’re trying to get in the front door, carrying several bags of groceries from the store. Your phone is ringing, so you quickly set everything down and answer.

“Hello?”

“Hello, this is Detective Anderson with the XYZ Police Department. I’m calling about your failure to pay a legal debt.”

Your heart skips a beat. Will you be arrested? Can they even do that?

“If you don’t pay your debt in full, we will be forced to take the next step,” the voice on the phone continues, “You don’t want to face criminal charges, do you?”

Your heart is positively hammering now. You can barely stammer out your reply as you tell the “officer” that you will make immediate payment arrangements and hang up.

Here’s the thing – that wasn’t a police officer. It was a collection agent pretending to be a detective. That is against the law, as is any other type of deception or subterfuge in which the agent pretends to be someone they are not or working on behalf of some other organization.

FAST FACT : There are over 200 debt collectors that are banned, by federal court orders, from taking part in the debt collection business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a list that contains all of the names and court cases open to the public.

Debt Collectors Cannot Falsify Documents or Mislead You

The laws governing debt collector honesty extend further, too. For instance, they can’t send you letters designed to look like they’re from a government agency or law enforcement. They cannot lie about what will happen if you don’t pay your debt, nor can they exaggerate their ability to seize your property or lie about the statute of limitations on your debt.

Finally, they’re not allowed to mislead you or make false claims about any aspect of your debt. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re legally required to provide you with all the information upfront.

For instance, they might not tell you about the statute of limitations, or they could fail to inform you that a significant amount of your debt comes from fees and charges leveled by the collection agency, not the original creditor.

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are not allowed to collect more money than what you owe, either. And, if you choose to pay your debt with a post-dated check, they are prohibited by law from depositing that check before the date on it.

3. You Are Protected Against Harmful Actions and Language

One goal of the FDCPA was to ensure that all debt collection agencies were held to a high standard in terms of how they communicated with debtors. Before the FDCPA was passed, debt collectors were free to use virtually any language they wanted. That included derogatory language and even profanity. Today, you are protected from harassment, threats, and more.

What does that include, though? It’s a pretty wide-ranging area. Anything that’s not fully truthful falls into this category.

For instance, let’s say you answer your home phone. It’s that debt collector again, and he’s out for blood over an auto loan you’ve failed to pay. “If you don’t pay the entire amount you owe right now,” he says, “I’ll be forced to find other ways to cover the debt. We’ll have to take your car!”

Now, unless the debt collector is working on behalf of the lender who issued your auto loan, they can’t legally take your car. This is a scare tactic, and it’s illegal. Here’s a quick look at what else is protected under the FDCPA:

  • Debt collectors cannot use profanity or derogatory language.
  • They cannot threaten to tell others about your debt.
  • They cannot threaten to publicly publish your debt and shame you.
  • They cannot threaten to garnish your wages (unless there’s a court order, but that’s another matter).
  • They cannot call you repeatedly and harass you.

4. You Have a Right to Dispute Untrue Information

Information can easily get mixed these days. It takes very little for mix-ups to happen, particularly when names are similar or Social Security numbers are a digit off. If a debt does not look familiar, you are not legally obligated to pay it. Instead, you can send the debt collection agency a validation letter.

Validation letters are exactly what they sound like – they demand that the collection agency provide you with information to validate their attempt to collect. In other words, it forces them to prove that the debt belongs to you and that you are required to pay it. It also puts a stop to collection efforts until they have responded to your request for validation.

Here’s the catch – you have to complete and mail the validation letter within 30 days of the first time you were contacted by the collection agency. Because so few consumers know about this protection, it’s not often used. However, it can be a powerful tool, and not just for keeping agents from trying to collect someone else’s debt from you. It can also help prevent you from repaying debts that have passed their statute of limitations.

Under the rules laid down in the FDCPA, the collection agency must take specific steps if it cannot validate the debt. First, the agency has to report the situation to the credit bureaus. Second, it must withdraw any related entries from your credit report. Finally, they have to immediately stop communications with you.

Common Infractions Made by Debt Collectors

While debt collectors are legally bound to follow the rules outlined in the FDCPA, they regularly choose to ignore them. In fact, agents are notorious for doing anything and everything they can to pressure you into paying up, even if those steps are unethical or illegal. Here are a few common infractions:

  1. Harassment: This usually involves multiple phone calls at all hours of the day and night.
  2. Overcharging: Agents often seek more in payment than what the debtor actually owes, disguising it as fees and interest charges.
  3. Threats: It’s not uncommon for agents to threaten consumers with serious outcomes if they don’t pay up, such as having their vehicle or even home repossessed or facing criminal charges and going to jail.

If you encounter any of these infractions, be sure to file a report with the FTC and keep a record of all communications with the debt collector.


Takeaway

If you’re dealing with a debt collection agency, always remember that you have rights under the law. Do not let them use unethical tricks and illegal tactics to force you into a more difficult financial situation. Inform the agent that you have documented the infraction(s) and that you’re going to report it.

Don’t stop there, though. Follow through! You should file a complaint with the FTC and with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It’s also important to contact your state’s attorney general’s office and file a complaint so that the information is public and you can hopefully prevent others in the state from becoming a victim.

Lastly, remember that it’s always ok to hang up the phone on a debt collector if you do not want to have a conversation. You do not need to try to bargain with them over the phone. If they contact you via mail, take the steps that are necessary to validate your debt and see how much time you have left on your state’s statute of limitations.

You have more rights and options than you may think!