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When Debt Collectors Break The Law: FDCPA Violations

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In a Nutshell

The FDCPA is a federal law that protects debtors by preventing collectors from engaging in unfair activities while trying to collect money. If you’re overwhelmed by debt collectors that call at inconvenient times or that use tactics designed to annoy or harass you, the FDCPA may protect you, and you may be able to sue for damages. In this article, we’ll discuss what the FDCPA is, how it works, and most importantly, how you can protect yourself from abusive debt collectors.

Written by Natasha Wiebusch, J.D..  
Updated July 26, 2021


Receiving a call from a debt collector is never a good experience, even when the collector is professional and follows the rules. Unfortunately, not all debt collectors are professional, and some of them are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). In this article, we’ll discuss what the FDCPA is, how it works, and most importantly, how you can protect yourself from abusive debt collectors.

What The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) Requires Of Debt Collectors

The FDCPA is a federal law that protects debtors by preventing collectors from engaging in unfair activities while trying to collect money. The FDCPA also imposes certain responsibilities on debt collectors so that debtors know who they are and what debt they’re trying to collect.

Specifically, during initial contact, debt collectors must inform you that they’re representing a debt collection agency, and a collector has to provide you with their contact information. Then, within five days of first contacting you, debt collectors must send you a validation notice. This is a letter that includes information about the debt they’re trying to collect. 

A validation notice must include the amount of debt and the name of the creditor. It must also mention that you have 30 days to dispute the debt. If you dispute the debt in writing, the debt collector must provide evidence that the debt actually exists. Finally, if you ask for the original creditor’s contact information within 30 days of receiving the letter, the debt collector must give it to you. If the validation notice does not include all of the information required by the FDCPA, then it’s not considered valid.

Unfair debt collection practices can come in many forms. If you’re a debtor, remember that you have rights in the collection process. Regardless of whether your debt is consumer debt, student loan debt, or something else, debt collectors must follow the law. Below are actions that a debt collector cannot take while attempting to collect money from you.

Harassment And Abuse

Under the FDCPA, a debt collector cannot harass or abuse you while attempting to collect money. Harassing behavior and abuse includes:

  • Threatening to use violence or engage in criminal behavior if you don’t pay

  • Using profane language while communicating with you

  • Publicizing your debts to embarrass you

  • Threatening to sell the debt to someone else if you don’t pay

  • Intentionally causing your phone to ring repeatedly

And, if you send the debt collector a written request to stop all communication with you, the debt collector must honor that request.

Contacting You At Inconvenient Times

Debt collectors can’t call you whenever they want. They can only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time. You can also ask a debt collector not to call you at work. If they continue to call you while you’re at work or if they call you outside the required times, they’re violating the FDCPA. 

Text Message And Email

In October 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a final rule clarifying some questions consumers had about when and how debt collectors can communicate with debtors online. These rules confirm that debt collectors can send you text messages and emails. However, collectors must provide opt-out instructions with each and every text message and email they send.

Deceptive And Unfair Practices

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors can’t engage in deceptive and unfair practices. Deceptive practices include making false representations about the amount or legal status of your debt, making false threats to take legal action, or otherwise deceiving you to get you to pay. Calling you collect so that you have to pay to accept the call is an example of an unfair practice. Engaging in any practice that forces you to pay additional money other than the debt you owe is considered an FDCPA violation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CFPB created an interim rule requiring debt collectors to disclose that renters might be eligible for temporary protection from eviction under federal law, before filing a motion to evict.

Other Prohibited Practices

FDCPA violations also expand beyond deceptive practices. For example, although a debt collector can call your friends or family members, they’re limited in what they can say. They can ask for your contact information, but they cannot discuss your debt or harass your friends and family in any way.

If the debt collector knows that you’re represented by an attorney, they have to call your attorney directly instead of calling you. Lastly, they can’t deposit or cash post-dated checks before the date a post-dated check is written, and they must provide at least three days notice before they cash any check.

The FDCPA Does Not Prohibit All Abusive Practices

For example, the FDCPA does not prevent debt collectors from trying to collect on a debt that is time-barred or past the statute of limitations for debt in your state. This means that even if you’re no longer legally obligated to pay the debt back, debt collectors can still try to collect it from you. That said, a debt collector can’t sue you to collect on a debt that is past the statute of limitations. Threatening to sue you for this kind of debt would constitute an FDCPA violation. 

Although collecting on a time-barred debt isn’t a violation of federal law, it does violate some state laws. Since these laws vary by state, it’s important to understand what protections you have under your state’s laws.

Finally, since the FDCPA only applies to debt collection agencies, not to original creditors, it doesn’t prohibit bad behavior carried out by original creditors. For example, if you’re getting phone calls from your credit card company or your auto lender, these calls may not be covered by the FDCPA.

What To Do If A Debt Collector Violates The FDCPA

Nobody should have to deal with a debt collector who is violating the FDCPA. Unfortunately, it does happen. If you believe a debt collector is violating the law, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself.

File A Lawsuit

Under the FDCPA, you have the right to sue your debt collector for violations of the FDCPA. Lawsuits must be filed in federal court as opposed to your local state court. And they must be filed within one year of the date that the debt collector violated the law. Often debt collectors who violate the FDCPA are also breaking state laws. If a debt collector is violating state law, you can file a complaint with your State Attorney General’s office. 

Contact The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

If you don’t want to personally sue your debt collector and collect damages, you can still report them by filing a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has the right to enforce the FDCPA and they may take action against the lender based on your complaint.

Lastly, it’s important to know that even though you can sue a debt collector for abusive debt collection practices, this doesn’t mean you won’t still owe them money. If you’re overwhelmed by debt collection calls and can’t afford to pay your debt collectors back, you may want to consider filing for bankruptcy.

Penalties For FDCPA Violations 

If you win a lawsuit against a debt collector for violating the FDCPA, the collector could be required to pay actual damages, which is the amount of money you’ve lost. For example, if the debt collector’s actions caused you to lose wages or pay more on your cell phone bill because they were harassing you with phone calls, they would have to pay you to cover those costs. The debt collector could also have to pay additional damages up to $1,000, along with paying your attorney’s fees.

Let’s Summarize...  

If you’re overwhelmed by debt collectors that call at inconvenient times or that use tactics designed to annoy or harass you, the FDCPA may protect you, and you may be able to sue for damages. Although FDCPA protects you from certain debt collection practices, your debt collectors can still take legal action to get you to repay debt. This is one reason why you should craft a plan to repay your debt or to declare bankruptcy if you’re struggling to make your debt payments.



Written By:

Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

LinkedIn

Natasha started her career as a lawyer representing labor unions and other investors in multi-state class action lawsuits. Passionate about the civil rights elements of her cases, she moved into practicing employment law to represent employees against discrimination of various ki... read more about Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

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