Debt Collectors Won't Leave Me Alone - What Can I Do?
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
Federal law protects you from certain unfair and harassing actions by debt collectors. The law is called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Under the law, a debt collector may not harass, abuse, mislead, lie, or be unfair to you. The law covers personal, family and household debts. It does not cover business or commercial debts.
Who is a debt collector? A debt collector is anyone who collects debts for others. In other words, if you owe money to a business, that business is not considered a debt collector. However, debt collection agencies are considered debt collectors. Only debt collectors are covered under the FDCPA. The law does not apply to creditors who collect their own debts.
Do I have to talk with a debt collector if they call me? No. You don't have to talk with a debt collector. In most cases, you have nothing to gain by talking with a debt collector on the phone. You should only communicate with a debt collector in writing. If a debt collector calls, tell them to contact you in writing only. If you don't want to talk with a debt collector, you can hang up the phone. If the debt collector calls back, hang up as many times as you need to until the debt collector stops.
Remember that the debt collector is probably not interested in why you haven't paid or can't pay your debt. Also remember that only you get to decide which debts and bills to pay first. You can't be arrested or jailed for not paying a debt. You have not committed a crime by not paying a debt or bill.
What should I do when a debt collector calls me?
You should keep a piece of paper by your phone and write down the date and time of each phone call. If you talk to the debt collector, write down what the debt collector said to you. Be sure to write down EACH time the collector calls. Calling you excessively is against the law. Your written record may help you if you have to go to court later.
The information section at the front of your local telephone book should tell you what to do about harassing, threatening, or annoying calls. You may report these calls to your telephone service center or annoyance call center.
Do I have to answer letters I get from debt collectors?
No. You don't have to answer letters you get from a debt collector. You should keep every letter and every envelope that a debt collector sends you in a safe place. The information in the letter and on the envelope may be important if you have to go to court later.
What must a debt collector tell me about the debt?
Within five days after you are first contacted, the debt collector must send you a written notice. This notice must tell you:
- the amount of money you owe,
- the name of the creditor, and
- what to do if you believe you don't owe the money or don't owe the amount they are trying to collect.
What should I do if I disagree about a debt?
If you disagree that you owe the debt or disagree about how much you owe, you should send a letter to the debt collector within 30 days of getting the written notice from them. The letter you send is called a "debt verification letter." In the letter, you should explain that you don't think you owe the money or that you disagree about the amount you owe. If you send a debt verification letter within 30 days of receiving the notice, the collector must stop any collection efforts against you until they have verified the debt. They can verify the debt by sending you proof of the debt, such as a copy of the bill. Click here for a sample validation letter available on MontanaLawHelp.org.
It is always a good idea to send a debt verification letter, even if you are fairly sure that you owe the debt. At the very least it will force the debt collector to verify what you owe and will halt the collection action for a short time. The debt collector may not contact you again until you are sent proof of the debt. After you are sent proof of the debt, the debt collector may restart collection efforts.
Important: Make a copy of any letter you send to a debt collector and save it in a safe place. Send all letters by certified mail, return receipt requested. Save the certified mail receipt and the green return receipt with your copy of the letter. This is done so that you have proof that you sent the letter and that the debt collector received it. This proof may be important if you have to go to court later.
Can I stop a debt collector from contacting me?
Yes. You may stop a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter to the debt collector telling them to stop. This letter is called a "cease contact letter." Once a debt collector gets your letter, they can't contact you again, except to say there will be no further contact or that they intend to take a certain legal action against you. If they do contact you, they are breaking the law, and you should talk to a lawyer. Click here for a sample cease contact letter available on MontanaLawHelp.org.
As with any other letters you send, make a copy of the letter and save it in a safe place. Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. Save the certified mail receipt and the green return receipt with your copy of the letter.
Keep in mind that this letter does not make the debt go away. It only forces the debt collector to stop contacting you. The debt collector can still take you to court to try to collect your debt.
So a debt collector can't contact me if I ask them to stop. What CAN a debt collector do?
A debt collector's options depend on what type of debt he is trying to collect. Normally debt collectors do not collect debts secured by collateral (car or home loans). If the debt is unsecured (credit card, medical bill, personal loan, etc.), the only way to collect it is to take you to court. Debt collectors usually go to court as a last resort because it is so expensive.
In other words, usually a debt collector cannot do anything more than ask you to pay and eventually sue you in court if you don't pay. As frightening as a lawsuit can be, it is usually not as serious as many debtors think. Many times debt collectors do not act on their threats of a lawsuit against people without very much money or property. If they do, the debtor can hire an attorney or represent himself and explain why he can't or shouldn't have to pay. If the debt collector has broken the law while trying to collect the debt from you, you should talk to a lawyer and present evidence of those violations at the trial.
What happens if the debt collector gets a judgment against me?
Even if a debt collector gets a court judgment against you, it does not necessarily mean you will be forced to pay the debt. The judgment gives the debt collector the right to take some of your wages and/or property. However, if you don't own much and don't earn much, the debt collector may not be able to get anything from you. There are federal and state laws that prevent debt collectors from taking a certain amount of your income and certain types of your property. If all of your income and property are protected by these laws, you are called "judgment proof." If you are judgment proof, there is nothing that the debt collector can do to collect the money you owe unless your financial situation changes.
If you are having trouble with debt collectors, you should also read What Debt Collectors Can and Can't Do.
Call the MLSA HelpLine for legal assistance:
Montana Legal Services Association
616 Helena Avenue, Suite 100
Helena, Montana 59601