You can't be thrown in jail for not paying your credit cards and it's illegal for collection agencies to threaten you with jail time over the phone. Don’t be intimidated by such threats; be proactive, know your rights under the FDCPA, and research your debt relief options, such as credit counseling and Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Written by Attorney Kassandra Kuehl.
Updated November 28, 2021
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your debts, know that you’re not alone. According to federal data, consumer debt in the United States tops $13.86 trillion in student loans, mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt. This figure doesn’t even account for unpaid medical debt, overdue child support payments, and back taxes. Americans are, as a general rule, swimming in debt.
This reality may serve as some comfort to you if you’re feeling embarrassed about not being able to keep on top of your debt load – most Americans are right where you are. However, it’s important to remember that simply because struggling with unpaid debt is common doesn’t mean that you should ignore your struggles. On the contrary, confronting your credit card debt and other overdue accounts head-on will help you to avoid potentially serious legal and financial consequences.
Defaulting on Credit Cards
If you’re struggling to manage your credit card bills, it’s important to understand the consequences that accompany missing payments. If you fail to make monthly payments, you’ll be hit with late fees. If you miss more than a few credit card payments in a row, you’ll default on your credit card debt. Defaulting will almost certainly result in higher interest rates, negative information attached to your credit report for up to 7 years, and a lowered credit score.
If you default on your credit card account, the credit card company that owns your debt may refer your account to a collection agency. At this point, a debt collector may begin calling you repeatedly and sending you letters demanding that you resolve your non-payment status. This turn of events can be stressful, to say the least.
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
Thankfully, credit card issuers, other creditors, debt collection agencies, and debt collectors are subject to legal restrictions regarding how they interact with debtors. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects consumers by regulating:
When they can be called
Whether they can be “threatened” over the phone
How they must be notified when debt collectors take certain actions
These protections don’t make the debt collection process less stressful or pleasant, but they do offer consumers a mechanism by which they can hold collection agencies and other service providers accountable for unlawful harassment and/or lack of notice related to collections-based activities.
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Being Sued for a Credit Card Debt
If a collection agency tries to collect on unpaid debt for an extended period of time without success, it will likely send the debt to a law firm. That law firm may then file a lawsuit against the debtor to secure a court order that will allow them to collect the civil debt in question.
If you are sued by a creditor or collection agency, you will receive a summons and a formal complaint. If you do not actively defend the lawsuit that has been brought against you, a court order will be issued in favor of the party that is suing you.
Wage Garnishments & Levies
A court order against a debtor may lead to wage garnishment and/or a bank account levy. Garnishment allows a portion of your earnings (or, in rare cases, your benefits) to be taken without your approval. This portion of your income will then be used to pay back your credit card company, payday lender, or other creditor who has obtained a judgment against you. By contrast, a bank account levy allows a creditor or debt collector to be paid back through a withdrawal of funds from your bank account without your permission.
Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Credit Cards?
Thankfully, the U.S. does not have a debtors’ prison, as such . As a result, it is rare that someone is sentenced to jail time for failure to pay debts. However, there are exceptions to this general rule in some states.
What is a Bench Warrant?
If you receive a letter indicating that failure to comply with its terms will result in arrest, you have likely been served with a bench warrant. These legal tools are often used in cases involving significantly overdue child support obligations. Especially in child support matters, failure to respond to a bench warrant could result in severe penalties.
If you’ve been served with a bench warrant, you have likely either knowingly or unknowingly failed to respond to an information subpoena. In child support cases, if the debtor fails to comply with the subpoena, they may be held in contempt of court and fined and/or imprisoned. An information subpoena may also be filed by a creditor or debt collector after they have filed legal action against a debtor. In this scenario, if you are pulled over and it is revealed that you have an outstanding bench warrant in your name related to debt collection for consumer debt (not child support debt), you will likely be taken to a public safety building, be made to fill out the information subpoena, and then released. You will not be arrested at your home for a consumer debt collection subpoena violation, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore a bench warrant.
But a Creditor Said on the Phone I Would Go to Jail?
A creditor absolutely can’t tell you over the phone that you will go to jail for failure to pay a credit card balance or any other kind of civil debt under United States law. Even if you’re behind on child support payments and are facing a bench warrant, you wouldn’t be threatened with jail time over the phone. This behavior is a violation of the FDCPA. If a creditor or a debt collector has threatened you in this way, they are lying and violating your rights. Take down their information and contact an attorney as soon as you can. It’s important to act quickly because unlawfully aggressive collection agencies often disappear before they can be held accountable. They disappear and then reappear, often under a new name, so that they can keep unlawfully intimidating consumers. If the collection agency calls you again while you’re waiting to meet with an attorney, know that you have the right to simply hang up on them.
The bottom line is that while you will likely not go to jail for failure to make credit card payments, ignoring your debt-related obligations can have significant consequences. To avoid negative reporting on your credit history, a lowering of your credit score, aggressive debt collection tactics, lawsuits, and other significant financial challenges, it’s important to employ a sound debt management strategy until your debts are resolved and your credit score improves.
Finally, while it’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with your state’s specific debt collection laws, know that it is unquestionably illegal for collection agencies to threaten you with jail time over the phone. Don’t be intimidated by such threats, be proactive. Speak with an attorney about your rights under the law so that you can hold unlawfully aggressive debt collectors accountable for their behavior.