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Five Things to Know About Debt Collectors

Have you been contacted by a debt collector about unpaid bills? If your answer is yes, you are not alone.  In 2010 (the last year in which statistics were reported) over 140,000 people complained to the Federal Trade Commission about abusive behavior by debt collectors.  This number represents only a small percentage of the total number of people who have been contacted by debt collectors.  It is possible that many communications are conducted in a civil manner.  It is also possible that many abusive communications are not being reported.  In either case, if you have been contacted by a debt collector, know that there are federal, state, and local laws which govern their behavior, and that misconduct is punishable by law.

One of the laws that regulate debt collector behavior is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, commonly referred to as the FDCPA.  This law governs the behavior of debt collectors in all fifty states, and awards damages, a thousand at a minimum, to borrowers where the debt collector is found, in a court of law, to have violated its provisions.

The FDCPA is a lengthy law.  But it is fairly straight forward in what it requires a debt collector to do, or not do.

Here are five of the basic rules included in the law:

1. Communication:  a debt collector may not contact a consumer at any unusual or inconvenient time or place (unless the consumer has given express permission for that type of communication).  The law presumes that contact before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. is unusual and inconvenient, and calls outside that time may constitute a violation of the law.

2. Harassment or abuse:  a debt collector may not harass or abuse a consumer.  The FDCPA gives several examples of what constitutes harassment under the law, including threats of violence, obscene language, repeatedly ringing the phone with the intent to harass you, failing to disclose the caller's identity.  

3. False or misleading representations:  debt collectors may not the character, amount, or legal status of a debt.  They may not imply that they are an attorney when they are not an attorney.  They cannot threaten legal action that they have no intention of taking, or are prohibited from taking, and they may not falsely imply that the consumer has committed a crime in order to disgrace you.

4. Unfair practices: debt collectors are prohibited from collecting fees, charges, and interest that is not expressly allowed for in your agreement with the creditor; they cannot solicit postdated checks as a tool to threaten you; they cannot deposit postdated checks early; and they can't call you collect in order to conceal the true purpose of the communication.

5. Validation of the debt:  the debt collector must send you a written notice that states the amount of the debt and the name of the creditor.  They must inform you of your right to dispute the debt, and the time for doing that (thirty days).  If their first contact with you does not include this information, they have five days from the first contact to send this information to you.

Those are five of the most basic guidelines for debt collectors contained in the FDCPA.  There are many more behaviors that are prohibited by the act, but most of them fall within these five categories.  

If you have been contacted by a debt collector, start taking notes.  If you believe that a debt collector is violating the law, be sure to contact an attorney who specializes in FDCPA claims.