Debt Collector Checklist: Knowing When They’ve Crossed the Line

The following is a guest post from Sergei Lemberg, whose firm represents consumers in matters relating to fair debt collection, fair credit reporting, and lemon law.

Debt collection calls can be annoying, but a frustrating situation can quickly turn into a nightmarish scenario when the collector harasses, embarrasses, or threatens you. While the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects you from unethical debt collectors, many consumers aren’t aware of its provisions. When dealing with debt collectors, it’s helpful to know what constitutes illegal debt collection tactics. When debt collectors violate the law, you have every right to sue them in court. If you prevail, the FDCPA says that you may be awarded up to $1,000 in damages, plus court costs and attorney fees.

Here are three ways that debt collectors cross the line:

1. Making threats. According to the FDCPA, debt collectors can’t threaten to take an action that they don’t intend to take, or that they aren’t allowed to take. Although the media has played up notorious cases of debt collectors threatening physical harm – or worse – most often debt collectors threaten wage garnishment. The reality is that, in order for a debt collection agency to garnish your wages, it first has to sue you in court and obtain a judgment against you. If a debt collection agency threatens wage garnishment, it has to make it clear that it intends to first take you to court. The agency also has to have the means to sue you and a track record of suing other consumers. If it doesn’t, it likely is in violation of the FDCPA.

2. Calling third parties. All too often, debt collectors call consumers’ friends, family members, coworkers, and employers. The FDCPA says that debt collectors may call a third party in order to obtain contact information for you, but generally they may only call that person once. Once the debt collector has your location information, he can’t continue to call other people. In addition, a debt collector can never mention that he’s collecting a debt, or discuss the debt with any other person (except your attorney). A debt collector can call your employer and verify your employment, but again, he can’t mention the debt.

3. Calling after you’ve told them to stop. Under the FDCPA, you have the right to put an end to debt collection calls. The best way to do this is by sending the debt collection agency a cease and desist letter via certified mail with return receipt requested. Sending a cease and desist letter doesn’t erase the debt, but it does prevent the debt collector from harassing you with phone calls and letters. Once you’ve sent the cease and desist notice, the debt collection agency is only allowed to contact you to inform you that they are pursuing legal action against you or that they are no longer attempting to collect the debt. If they call you for any other reason, they are likely in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

If you believe that you’ve been the victim of illegal debt collection tactics, you should consult with an attorney who has experience in fair debt law. Because the FDCPA has fee-shifting provisions (meaning that the debt collector has to pay your legal fees and court costs), the consumer attorney with whom you consult likely will represent you at no charge.