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Is a debt collector harassing you, threatening you or asking you to pay money you don’t think you owe? You don’t have to put up with it. You have rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and you shouldn’t hesitate to use them.

Here’s what you need to know about how to confront a debt collector, your debt collection rights and your obligations when dealing with debt collectors.

How to Confront a Debt Collector

Debt collectors can be nasty. That doesn’t mean you should respond in kind. But here’s what you can do.

You have no obligation to answer their calls or talk to them on the phone. It’s much harder for a debt collector to threaten or harass you if you refuse to engage with him or her.

The best way to communicate with a debt collector is in writing because otherwise you have no proof of what you’ve told the collector or what promises or threats were made to you. Using certified mail with a return receipt gives you proof that your letter was delivered and lets you know who signed for it.

If you don’t want a debt collector to contact you any more, get the name and address the next time he or she calls you, then send a letter directing him or her to stop contacting you. If you have an attorney, you can tell the collector to direct all future contact to your attorney.

The collector will still be allowed to contact you to let you know he or she will stop contacting you and whether the collector or original creditor is suing you, but otherwise, they are supposed to leave you alone.

Your Debt Collection Rights

You have many rights when a collector wants you to repay a debt.

  • You have the right to a written statement of how much you owe, to whom you owe it and how to pay it.
  • If the collector is asking you to repay more than one debt – and you determine that the debts are legitimate and you’re going to repay them – you have the right to determine how your payments are applied. If you want to make a $100 payment on one debt and a $10 payment on the other, the collector cannot decide to apply $55 to each debt. The collector also can’t apply any payment to a debt you’re disputing.
  • Further, you have the right to not receive collection phone calls before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., to not receive an excessive number of phone calls and to forbid a collector from calling you at work.

If you think a debt collector has violated your rights, you can report him or her to your state attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If enough consumers file complaints about the same collector, law enforcement might take action against the collector.

You can also file a lawsuit against an abusive collector, and the judge can award you damages for illegal debt-collection practices. However, even if a collector violates your rights and a judge rules in your favor, you will still owe the debt if it’s legitimate.

Your Obligations When Dealing With Debt Collectors

While debt collectors’ threats can be bogus, you can’t just blow them off without verifying them because the consequences of ignoring legitimate collection actions can be serious. Here is what you need to do to protect yourself in the collections process and to comply with your responsibility to repay a debt you really owe.

  • You must respond to any collection lawsuit filed against you, whether you think you owe the debt or not. The problem is, if you’ve suffered a debt collector’s abuse, you might not trust that any lawsuit notice you receive is legitimate. The process server should give you a packet of papers that includes a court summons and a complaint notice. You can look up the court’s contact information online at the court’s own website and use that information to call the court and verify the summons. If it’s legitimate, you need to respond to the complaint by the deadline. For more information, see Fighting Back Against Collection Lawsuits.
  • You must agree or disagree with each accusation in the complaint. If you disagree, state why. For example, has the statute of limitations passed, or has the collector failed to prove that you owe the debt? Free, online legal resources can help you learn how to respond.
  • If you ignore the complaint, you lose the lawsuit and the collector wins.
  • Once you lose a lawsuit, the collector can take more drastic action to get money from you, such as garnishing your wages or placing a levy on your bank account. If that happens, you’ll be forced to pay the debt because your employer will have to turn over part of your paycheck to the debt collector or your bank will have to turn over your account balance to the collector.
  • Further, if you don’t show up for your court date, the judge could issue a warrant for your arrest.
  • If the court fines you and you don’t pay the fine, you also put yourself at risk of arrest.

The Bottom Line

When you interact with a debt collector, you need to understand your rights and obligations. If you don’t, you could suffer unnecessary harassment or make an expensive mistake. For further reading, see 5 Things Debt Collectors Are Forbidden To Do and How The Debt Collection Agency Business Works.

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