Debt collection laws: know your rights

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The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice. See Lexington Law’s editorial disclosure for more information.

Debt collection laws exist to protect consumers from unfair debt collection practices. The inception of collection agencies brought with it a prevalence of abusive and deceptive debt collection practices among collectors. 

Since then, a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted to combat abusive and unethical behavior by debt collectors. The FDCPA places certain limitations on debt collectors and the methods they use to contact debtors. 

It’s important to know your rights and what a debt collector can and cannot do by law. If you’re being contacted by a debt collector, you can protect yourself by understanding what’s within their limitations and what’s not. 

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: what are the rules for debt collectors?

People often misunderstand exactly who the FDCPA applies to. The law targets third-party debt collectors: Collection agencies, debt buyers and lawyers who practice debt collection as part of their business are all considered third-party debt collectors. 

The FDCPA covers debts such as mortgages, credit card debt, medical debt, student loans and auto loans. The law outlines the specific limitations of how a debt collector can contact you, and if violated, a lawsuit is warranted within a year against the collector or collection agency. 

When and how debt collectors can contact you, and can a debt collector call you at work?

  • Time: Collection agencies can contact you by phone, mail, fax or email. Debt collectors aren’t permitted to call you at unusual times—they can only call you between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. your local time. Any contact outside of those hours is an FDCPA violation. 
  • Place: Debtors also can’t contact you in unusual places, such as hospitals, schools or restaurants. While they’re technically allowed to call you at your home or your office, you have the right to tell them not to contact you at your workplace. Similarly, if they know personal calls aren’t permitted at your place of work, they can’t legally contact you while you’re there. 
  • Representation by attorney: If you have an attorney to represent you and a debt collector knows this, they aren’t usually permitted to contact you and must contact the attorney instead. If you get a call from a debt collector while an attorney is representing you, give them the attorney’s contact information and tell them to direct their communication to them. 
Debt collectors cannot contact you before 8AM, after 9PM, at inconvenient or unusual places, after asking them to stop.

Who else can a debt collector call about my debt?

Debt collectors are within their rights to contact friends and family in order to find your address, phone number or place of work. However, they can only contact each individual once, and they can’t discuss the details of your debt with anyone but you, your spouse and your attorney. 

What can debt collectors say?

When a debt collector contacts you, they are required to identify themselves as a debt collector. After identifying themselves, they should state the debt they’re calling about and request payment for it. They should also inform you that any information you provide during the communication will be used in the effort of collecting the debt. 

The FDCPA prohibits collectors from engaging in any form of harassment, including communication that is abusive, threatening or deceptive. Examples of harassment include:

  • Using profane language
  • Threatening bodily harm 
  • Misrepresenting what you owe 
  • Making false claims that you could be arrested 
  • Threatening your property
  • Making repeated attempts to contact you or calling you anonymously 

When a debt collector contacts you about a debt, they are required by law to provide specific details about the claimed debt at hand. This includes:

  • The name of the creditor who loaned funds to you or provided a service
  • The amount owed
  • Statement of your right to dispute the debt if you send a written request within 30 days of contact
  • Statement of your right to request the contact information of the original creditor (if it differs from the current creditor) if you send a written request within 30 days of contact

If you speak to a collector and they fail to provide this information in the first instance of contact, they are required to send it to you in writing within five days. 

How much can debt collectors ask for?

A debt collector can only ask for the amount you owe including outstanding fees, charges and unpaid interest—any request for additional payments outside of that scope is prohibited by law.

What to do if your debt collectors ask for more than you owe: Tell them you don't owe that amount. Ask for a verification of debt.

Debt collection and your rights: can I dispute a debt? 

When you speak with a debt collector, you’re allowed to ask for any additional information pertaining to the debt at hand. It’s also within your rights to dispute the debt if you believe it’s been made in error or if you believe the claimed amount owed is incorrect. 

How can I dispute a debt?

If you’ve been contacted by a debt collector claiming you owe a debt and you believe it’s in error, you can contact the collector in writing explaining that you want to dispute the case. If you do this within 30 days of receiving your debt verification notice, the collector cannot contact you while your claim is being investigated. If you fail to do so within 30 days, you can still send a letter to investigate the debt—but the collector will still be legally allowed to continue contacting you.

While you can request investigation of the debt over the phone, doing so permits the collector to continue debt collection activities and they aren’t required to stop contacting you while the debt is verified. That’s why it’s best to always make your disputes in writing. It’s wise to send your letter by certified mail and pay for a return receipt—this allows you to prove the collector received it. 

What is a debt verification notice?

A debt verification notice is the written notice sent by a debt collector in response to your letter of dispute. It includes details about what you owe and to whom you owe it. As mentioned above, debt collectors are obligated to send this if you notify them of your wish to investigate the debt, or otherwise notify you that they will cease their collection efforts (as long as you sent the letter within 30 days of first contact with the collector.) Here’s what it should include: 

  • The amount of debt you owe
  • The name of the creditor 
  • A statement that if you request information about the original creditor, you should receive it within 30 days

The debt verification notice is meant to provide you with enough information about the debt that you can compare it to your own records and determine whether or not you actually owe it. The notice will include different information depending on your grounds for dispute:

  • Identity theft: If you’re investigating the debt because you believe it could be a mistaken identity or instance of identity theft or fraud, the verification notice must include a copy of the original signed contract. 
  • Debt amount: If you’re investigating the amount of the debt, the verification notice should include specific information about the payment amounts made, plus any interest or fees charged. 

Remember that if you make a written request for a debt verification notice, the collector is legally required to cease all debt collection activities and communication with you until they provide the requested information. If they attempt to communicate with you within this 30-day period, they can be held legally responsible for breaching the FDCPA. It’s wise to keep a copy of this letter for your records, and send the letter by certified mail to have proof that the collector received it.

Can I ask a debt collector to stop contacting me?

It is within your rights to request a collector to cease communication with you. It must be done in writing and sent by mail. Again, it’s best to send the letter by certified mail along with a return receipt in order to have the request on record. 

From that point on, the collector may only contact you to inform you that they’re terminating their efforts or to explain their next steps, such as taking the case to court. 

How long can a debt collector legally pursue old debt?

Most debts have a shelf life—after three to seven years, they usually expire. This is known as a statute of limitations, and once it expires, the debt becomes time-barred and the collector can no longer legally force you to pay a debt in court. 

If the statute of limitations has passed — meaning how long a lender can collect that debt — then you're not legally obligated to pay it. Source: Federal Trade Commission.

While it’s true that once that statute of limitations is up, debt collectors can’t take legal action against you—like filing a lawsuit against you for a debt you owe—they can still make attempts to collect the debt by calling you and sending letters.

How long is the statute of limitations?

The exact time frame varies by state, so this depends on where you incurred the debt. It also depends on the type of debt you’re dealing with. If you’re unsure of the specifics for your situation, it’s smart to contact an attorney who handles debt law. You can search for debt collection defense law firms in your area to find a local resource to help you navigate your situation and provide the facts about where you stand. 

Does disputing a debt restart the statute of limitations?

No. If your debt is time-barred because it’s reached its statute of limitations, the only thing that can restart the clock on it is if you make a payment on it (or a partial payment) or even promise to pay the debt, thereby admitting you owe it. Other actions that could restart the statute of limitations include entering into a payment plan or accepting a settlement offer from the collector. 

While investigating your debt won’t restart the statute of limitations, admitting the debt is yours during your dispute will. It’s important to be cautious in your conversations with debt collectors—some will try and get you to admit to the debt without you realizing it, and then the clock restarts. Again, it’s wise to partner with a debt collection law firm to navigate these types of situations, which can get dicey if you aren’t aware of your state’s laws, your rights and the specifics of your situation. 

How do debt collections affect my credit?

Like any unpaid debt or missed payment, having a collection on your account will have a negative effect on your credit score. Lenders want to see that you’re a responsible borrower, and if your debts have gone to collections, they diminish your creditworthiness. 

When you have a debt in collections, it means the original creditor assumed you weren’t intending to pay it (this could be after 60, 120 or even 180 days depending on the lender) and passed it off to a collection agency. Credit bureaus usually categorize these debts based on how late they are, which determines how much your credit score will drop. 

Generally, a debt in collections remains on your credit report for up to seven years. After seven years, the debt should fall off. The most recently added debt accounts on a credit report will have a more severe impact on your credit. But by and large, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how an unpaid debt will affect your credit score, because it’s dependent on your unique credit history and the type of debt incurred. Someone who’s only had one debt transferred to collections may have an easier time than someone with repeated collection accounts on record. 

Ultimately, debt collections can be crushing to your credit score if you aren’t careful. Your credit report affects countless areas of your life, from your ability to get a loan or a credit card, to the annual percentage rate (APR) you pay for a line of credit to even employment. Luckily, you aren’t defenseless when facing debt collections: The entire purpose of debt collection laws is to protect you, the consumer. Understanding how they work and knowing your rights can empower you to work out the debt in the best way possible and protect yourself in the process. 

Navigating unpaid debts isn’t something to brush off, and understanding your rights as a consumer is a smart place to start when it comes to handling debt. Read up on how negative items could affect your credit so that you’re prepared for anything life throws at you, and work with a credit repair law firm, like Lexington Law, to get additional help with your credit.

Reviewed by John Heath, Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm. Written by Lexington Law.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, John Heath earned his BA from the University of Utah and his Juris Doctor from Ohio Northern University. John has been the Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm since 2004. The firm focuses primarily on consumer credit report repair, but also practices family law, criminal law, general consumer litigation and collection defense on behalf of consumer debtors. John is admitted to practice law in Utah, Colorado, Washington D. C., Georgia, Texas and New York.

Note: Articles have only been reviewed by the indicated attorney, not written by them. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only. Use of, and access to, this website or any of the links or resources contained within the site do not create an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship between the reader, user, or browser and website owner, authors, reviewers, contributors, contributing firms, or their respective agents or employers.