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Debt Collector Calling Family Members? Know Your Rights.

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In a Nutshell

Debt collection agencies can contact family members or your place of work, but they have to be careful about what they ask about. They can't discuss your debt with any third parties. They’re really only supposed to call third parties if they can’t reach you or don’t have your contact information. These rights are spelled out under the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which also protects you from debt collector harassment.

Written by Attorney Eric Hansen
Updated July 17, 2023

Yes. It is legal for debt collectors to call third parties like relatives or friends. But the law limits what they can say. They’re really only supposed to call third parties if they can’t reach you or don’t have your contact information. They can't discuss your debt with any third party, including friend, family, or an employer or coworker.

These protections are granted by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). It was enacted to help stop debt collection agencies from using predatory and unfair practices. The FDCPA outlines what bill collectors can and can’t do when they are attempting to collect an outstanding debt.

Credit cards, medical debts, student loans, and other consumer debts are covered by the FDCPA. Business debts and non-consumer debts are not covered by the FDCPA. The law applies to debt collectors and debt buyers, but most provisions don't apply to original creditors.

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When Can Debt Collectors Contact Family Members?

Debt collection agencies can contact family members or your place of work, but they have to be careful about what they ask about. Debt collectors may contact third parties like a cosigner to get your home address, phone number, or place of employment.

Asking family members about your whereabouts and basic contact information is perfectly legal. But debt collectors cannot ask your friends or family members about other subjects. In fact, bill collectors can’t even mention your debt or how much you owe.They usually say they need to discuss a personal financial matter and that they’re trying to get a hold of you but can’t seem to reach you.

What Are Debt Collection Agencies Legally Permitted To Do?

Though the FDCPA regulates debt collection agencies, there are still many things they are legally allowed to do. For example, they can seek payment on an expired debt or take legal action and sue debtors to try to collect payment. If they get a judgment against you in court, they can garnish your wages or bank account.

Debt collectors can contact you during reasonable business hours and send you letters, emails, and notifications about your debt with the aim of collecting as much of that debt as they can. You have the right to tell the debt collector to stop calling you at work or home, but that doesn't mean the debt or debt collector will go away.

Many people who have debts have dodged a phone call from their lenders or are actively screening phone calls to make sure the caller isn’t from a collections agency. If you’ve done that, you’re not alone. But it’s best not to make a habit of dodging collection calls or not following up on collections activity on your debts. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. It usually gets worse and can come back to bite you in the end. There are negative consequences for ignoring collection calls. For example, your credit score may take a hit.

The FDCPA and other state and federal laws do provide protections to consumer debtors. These laws limit what debt collection agencies can do. They can’t show up at your workplace, arrest you, or harass you. Also, debt collectors can only contact a specific family member, friend, or neighbor once unless that person asks the debt collector to call back or if the debt collector reasonably believes it might learn new information about the whereabouts of the debtor. 

Debt collection agencies can’t demand or request payment from third parties on behalf of the debtor. They also cannot berate, harass, threaten, or abuse family members or other third parties. You don’t have to take harassment from a bill collector and neither do others on your behalf. Debt collectors must identify themselves when they contact you and provide further information when asked.

The FDCPA also prevents debt collectors from leaving messages with third parties. They can’t indicate that you have a debt, what you owe, or who you owe it to. Finally, they can’t ask about your bank accounts.

How Do You Stop Debt Collectors From Contacting Family Members?

The simplest way to stop debt collectors from contacting your family members is to pay off the debt. Though this is probably easier said than done! If you can't pay the debt in full, you can try to negotiate a settlement to pay less on the debt than the total you owe.

Alternatively, you may be able to set up a payment plan with a creditor or a debt collection agency. But if you do, be sure that you will be able to stick to the payment plan. If you don’t, you could end up in a worse situation than before.

Also, be aware that making a payment agreement can restart the statute of limitations. This means the debt collection agency will have more time to collect on that debt than before.

What if the Debt Collector Violates the FDCPA?

If you think that a debt collection agency has violated the FDCPA, you can contact an attorney for legal advice, contact your state's attorney general office, or file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It doesn't matter if the debt collector is calling you, a family member, neighbor, or friend. If they're harassing people, abusing people, or acting inappropriately by informing others about the details of your consumer debts or not properly identifying themselves, they may be violating the FDCPA. A consumer and debtors’ rights attorney will be able to assist you with potential claims.

Filing a complaint can help prevent future inappropriate or unlawful acts. Additionally, you may want to contact an attorney for a consultation. A debtor’s rights or consumer protection attorney may be able to stop the collection activity or negotiate a debt settlement. They might even be able to make a claim against the debt collection agency for FDCPA and other consumer protection violations and get some monetary damages for you from the debt collection agency.

How a Debt Verification Letter or Cease-and-Desist Letter Can Help

Debt collectors are persistent. Sending a debt verification letter or a simple cease-and-desist letter can stop debt collectors from contacting you. There are many templates available online including those from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The CFPB site also has FAQs and resources on personal finance, debt relief, and how to stop debt collection calls. Finally, your local legal aid organization may be able to provide form letters that you can modify as needed.

Let’s Summarize...

While it might be frustrating or embarrassing to have a debt collector call your family or friends, it is legal. But the FDCPA limits what collectors can say to third parties and how frequently they can contact them. Also, you can take steps to limit this contact by sending a cease-and-desist or debt verification letter. If you have an attorney, debt collectors should contact them instead of you.

Debt collectors are not allowed to harass you or your friends and family. You can and should report violations of the FDCPA to the proper authorities. Stay calm, know your rights, and use the tools available to you to make collections activity a lot less stressful for you and your family. 

Written By:

Attorney Eric Hansen

Eric D. Hansen is an experienced Minnesota attorney within a number of varying and nuanced practice areas. He has operated his own solo practice as well as worked at small suburban boutique firms and large diversified downtown law firms. Eric has a wealth of experience in busines... read more about Attorney Eric Hansen

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