Know Your Rights When Dealing with a Debt Collector

It may have happened to you—a debt collector calls late at night or early in the morning, demanding payment on a debt they claim you owe. Maybe they also called your parents to talk about your debt. Perhaps they even threatened to have you arrested if you didn’t pay.

Dealing with debt is stressful at the best of times. But dealing with debt when you’re behind on payments and a debt collector comes calling? It can feel like too much to handle. That’s why it’s essential you know your rights when talking to a debt collector—when you do, you’ll know when their behavior is crossing the line, and you’ll know how to defend yourself.

First, remember to stay calm when a debt collector calls. Carefully process what they say. Has the debt collector called the right person? Can they confirm the debt is actually yours?

April Kuehnhoff, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, advises people to slow down interactions with debt collectors. People should “take the time that they need to discover whether this really is the debt that they owe,” she says. “Consumers have the right to ask questions and get more information.”

If it’s not possible over to verify over the phone that you owe the debt, you should ask to get more information about the debt in writing. The debt collector is legally obliged to mail you a “validation notice” within five days of their first contact with you. This will contain the creditor’s information and the amount owed. It will also outline what to do if the debt is not yours.

Let’s say that, once you receive the validation notice, you realize that the debt is indeed someone else’s. You need to reply to the notice within 30 days confirming that this is the case. Once you do this, the debt collector is no longer allowed to contact you unless they take further action, such as starting legal proceedings against you or sending verification that you owe the debt.

According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), there are certain restrictions on debt collector calls. For example:

  • They may only call you after 8 a.m. and before 9 p.m. unless you explicitly tell them otherwise.
  •  They cannot contact your coworkers, friends, or family to talk about your debt unless it is to learn your contact information.
  • They may not harass you—this includes threatening you with physical violence, swearing at you, or saying they will shame you by sharing your debts publicly.
  • They cannot lie to you about what you owe or pretend to be someone they are not. For example, they cannot impersonate a law enforcement officer or a lawyer.
  • They cannot threaten to have you arrested or deported.
  • Finally, they cannot apply a payment to any debt you believe you do not owe.

If a debt collector does any of these things, it may simply be that they are unprofessional. However, it could also be a sign of a scam. Anyone of the above actions “should be a red flag for the consumer to slow down,” says Kuehnhoff. “Ask more questions. Make sure that this is a legitimate entity.”

If you are subject to inappropriate behavior from a debt collector, keep a log of it. Note the name of the caller, what they said, and the time of the call. Make sure you never give out personal information to a debt collector who harasses you and doesn’t make any payments until you are completely certain this is a debt you owe. By knowing your rights and keeping a clear head, you will make sure no one can intimidate or bully you into paying the money you do not owe.

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