5 Rights to Flex When a Debt Collector Calls (Even if You Really Owe Money)

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When an unpaid credit card bill or loan payment comes back to haunt you in the form of a persistent debt collector, it’s hard to know what to do.

You know you owe the debt, but the daily phone calls on your cell phone and at work aren’t helping you pay it down any faster. They’re just making you miserable in the interim, and you’re terrified that a co-worker or even your boss may answer the next time a debt collector rings.

But just because you have unpaid debt, that doesn’t give collection agencies the right to harass you. You have control over when and how debt collectors contact you.

That’s thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the law that governs the behaviors of debt collectors.

Your Rights as a Person in Debt

Bruce McClary with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling walked us through the rights the fair debt collection law grants people in debt. The foundation is a national debt counseling nonprofit.

“As a former debt collector, I can tell you that a lot of people are not aware of the fact that they have some level of control over requesting how and when they are contacted,” McClary said.

You can start exercising your rights as soon as your next collection call.

You get to say how often they call you. If you’re sick of the deluge of phone calls you get every day from bill collectors, you have to right to request that the company limit how often its employees call.

You can stop calls to your workplace. Some state laws already limit how often bill collectors can call you at work, McClary said. But even if your state doesn’t, the federal law says that if the incessant calls have the potential to put your job in jeopardy, you have a right to ask them to stop, and the debt collector must comply.

You can stop calls before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. This is based on your time zone, not your bill collector’s. You shouldn’t even have to request this because it’s already built into the law. But if you are getting early morning or late night calls, put a stop to it by making this request in writing.

You can stop calls altogether. If you’re sick of the calls and are looking for a way to communicate with the debt collector that doesn’t make answering your phone feel like a game of Russian Roulette, you can even ask the company to stop calling altogether — at work, at home and on your cell. You can request contact via email or mail instead, McClary said.

You can stop all communication, period. McClary added that the law allows you to go as far as cutting all communication over the phone and in writing. But he doesn’t suggest you do that.

“When you request to have communication completely cut off and you just want to drop off their radar, that sends them a signal that you have zero intention of paying ever, and it may accelerate some of their actions in trying to recover the debt in other ways,” McClary said.

It could increase the likelihood of a lawsuit over the debt if you choose to bury your head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist.

What if a Debt Collector Ignores Your Requests?

McClary says it’s important to make a request in writing as often as possible so you have a record of it. That could be as simple as an email using software that lets you know when the email is opened, or as involved as a certified letter that requires a signature when the company receives it. You not only want the record to show you sent it; you also want proof it was received.

It will be important that you can prove you made the request if you ever have to file a complaint against a debt collection company.

In most cases, filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission will be enough.

In extreme cases when the debt collector is harassing you or threatening you with violence, report it to your local law enforcement if the collection agency is in your state or the FBI if the debt collector is calling from a different state, McClary said.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes about how government and court actions impact your wallet.