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What Debt Collectors Can, and Can’t, Do To Collect a Debt

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In a Nutshell

The debt collection process can be confusing. You probably have many questions about what a debt collector can and can’t do. Luckily, there are debt collection laws designed to protect you from deceptive practices and misleading representations. This article will outline what debt collectors can and can’t do and teach you how to protect your rights.

Written by the Upsolve TeamLegally reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated July 7, 2023

If you have past-due debts you may be worried that a debt collector will contact you. Or maybe you have already been contacted by one. The debt collection process can be confusing. You probably have many questions about what a debt collector can and can’t do. Luckily, there are debt collection laws designed to protect you from deceptive practices and misleading representations. This article will outline what debt collectors can and can’t do and teach you how to protect your rights.

What Can Debt Collectors Do?

Many people have trouble paying their bills such as medical bills, student loans, and credit card debt. When you owe money, the creditor may penalize you for late payments by charging late fees and reporting late payments to the credit bureaus. After a certain amount of time, if you still haven’t paid your bills, the original creditor can charge off your account or sell your debt to a debt buyer or assign a debt collector to handle your account. 

The debt collector may be part of the creditor’s company or a third party like an attorney or collection agency that purchased your debt. Their job is to get you to pay the amounts you owe. They get paid when you pay your debt. Debt collectors have a legal right to try to collect on the unpaid debt because you breached the original contract saying you’d repay the debt. They often try to do this by sending letters and, within reason, making phone calls. They can also send text messages and emails.

If you’ve been contacted by a debt collector, they’ve provided you with a verification of the debt, and you continue to ignore the collection activities, they can take legal action and sue you to reclaim that money. If you are sued, you will receive a summons and complaint from the court. It’s important to open and respond to this summons or you may lose your case by default. If the debt collector wins the lawsuit, they can take further collection action, like withholding or garnishing a portion of your paycheck. With a court order, they could also take money from your bank account. This is known as a bank levy.

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What Can’t Debt Collectors Do?

It may seem like debt collectors have a lot of power to collect the money. But that power is limited. Agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. In addition to these agencies, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from abusing their power. 

While the FDCPA is designed to protect anyone with consumer debt from abusive debt collection practices, it does not stop debt collectors from contacting you to try to collect debts you owe. You can still be subject to the methods we’ve already discussed. Keep reading to find out what debt collectors cannot do.

Abusive, Threatening, or Profane Communications

There are limits to how a debt collector may contact you and what language they can use. They cannot use abusive language or profane language. They are not allowed to threaten you, your family, or your job. They can only say they’re going to file a lawsuit against you if they have the legal right to do so. And they can’t say they will destroy your reputation by filing a lawsuit and take you for everything you have.

Harassment or Phone Calls Made at Inconvenient Times

Though debt collectors can contact you, they can’t harass you. They cannot call you all the time. Constant phone calls, calls that are meant to annoy or harass you are barred under the FDCPA. 

Also, they are only allowed to contact you between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time. Calling outside of those hours is not allowed and may be considered harassment. You can also ask debt collectors not to contact you at work. If a debt collector contacts you at work after you have requested them not to, they are violating the law.

Contact With Third Parties 

If a debt collector cannot reach you, they are allowed to contact third parties. However, that contact must follow strict guidelines. They must identify themselves. They may contact the third party to verify your phone number or address but they cannot say they are trying to collect on a debt or state how much you owe.

Deceitful Practices

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors cannot make false claims or engage in other deceptive practices. When they contact you, they cannot lie about the amount of the debt. They’re also not allowed to say they are going to sue you if the statute of limitations — the amount of time someone has to file suit — has passed. They also cannot say they will do something they cannot do under the law, such as garnish your wages without a court order. They must identify who they are calling for. They cannot falsely claim to be an attorney, law enforcement, or from the government.

Post-Dated Checks

Sometimes people send post-dated checks to a collection agency to pay their debt. For example, they may send several checks at one time, dated June 1, July 1, and August 1, with the intention that the debt is paid on those dates. The debt collectors cannot cash post-dated checks prior to the date on the check. In our example, they could not cash all three checks at the same time. If they wish to deposit the check, they must provide you with written notice at least three business days but not more than 10 business days before depositing the check. This notice will allow you to plan accordingly and make sure the funds are available.

What if a Debt Collector Has Violated the Law?

In addition to being protected by federal laws like the FDCPA, your state also has laws to protect you from abuse by debt collectors. If you feel like you are being harassed by a debt collector or feel like they are acting illegally by violating the FDCPA, you can report them to the CFPB. Similarly, if they have violated state law, you may report them to your state’s Attorney General.

Protecting Yourself From Debt Collectors

Given all of this information, if you have been contacted by a debt collector, it can be hard to know what to do next. Here are some ways to exercise your rights and protect yourself when dealing with debt collectors.

Check your credit report. If you’re not sure you owe an outstanding debt a debt collector is contacting you about, you can request a free credit report from one of the credit reporting agencies. Your credit report shows you a record of each of payment history and debts and what collection actions are currently open against you. That way you know who might be calling you and for what debts. 

But credit reports are not always accurate. You might find that a payment you made on time was reported as a late payment. There might be inaccurate information regarding the amount owed or a debt may be listed on your report that isn’t yours. If you don’t believe that a debt should be listed or you think other information is incorrect, you can dispute it.

Verify the debt.

When a debt collector initially contacts you regarding a debt, they are required to tell you how much you owe and the name of the creditor you owe it to. As with your credit report, there may be times when they have inaccurate information. The amount could be wrong or the debt may not be yours. To ensure the debt amount is correct and that you owe it, you can verify the debt with the debt collector.

To verify the debt, you need to send the debt collector a letter. It is best to request a return receipt so that you can confirm they received it. The debt collector must validate the debt within 30 days or they can no longer continue collection actions against you. 

They must tell you the amount owed, who you owe it to, and the name of the original creditor. They must also tell you what to do if you do not think it is your debt. It is important that you do not assume their information is valid — debts get bought and sold all the time. Due to their large caseload, debt collectors get debts get mixed up all the time. 

Stop creditor contact.

You also have the right to request that a creditor stop contacting you. Once you have requested this, they can no longer contact you to repay the debt, unless they are moving forward with legal action, like filing a lawsuit.

File bankruptcy and stop collection through the automatic stay.

If you are drowning in debt, have several accounts in collection, and are unable to repay those debts, you may consider filing bankruptcy. Bankruptcy provides relief from debt collector’s phone calls, letters, and potential lawsuits through the automatic stay. The automatic stay prevents creditors and debt collectors from trying to collect their money during the bankruptcy proceedings. It can also stops current wage garnishments and lawsuits. In most cases, the automatic stay goes into effect immediately after filing for bankruptcy. 

Filing for bankruptcy gives you a chance to recover from your financial difficulties and figure out what your next steps should be. If you wish to explore bankruptcy as an option or start the process, hiring a bankruptcy attorney is one way to go. If you cannot afford an attorney, Upsolve may be able to help. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through the bankruptcy process and help you file with the court.

Let’s Summarize...

If you owe a debt, your creditor is entitled to contact you or even sue you to collect the money you owe. Sometimes they sell the debt to a debt collection agency. Debt collectors can use many methods to collect debts, but they can’t harass you or use abusive practices. from people who owe them. Some debt collection practices are illegal under the FDCPA. Debt collectors who violate these laws can be reported to the FTC, CFPB, or your state attorney general.

It is important to know your rights when dealing with a debt collector. Don’t be afraid to exercise those rights.

Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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