5 Things Debt Collectors Are Forbidden to Do

Debt collectors have a reputation—in some cases a well-deserved one—for being obnoxious, rude, and even scary while trying to get borrowers to pay up. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted to curb these annoying and abusive behaviors, but some debt collectors flout the law.

Here are five tactics that debt collectors are specifically forbidden from using. Knowing what they are can help you stand up for yourself with confidence.

1. Pretend to Work for a Government Agency 

The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from pretending to work for any government agency, including law enforcement. They also cannot claim to be working for a consumer reporting agency.

Key Takeaways

  • If you really don't owe the debt, there are steps you can take.
  • Even if you do, debt collectors aren't allowed to threaten, harass, or publicly shame you.
  • You can order them to stop contacting you.

A 2014 incident in Georgia shows exactly what debt collectors are not supposed to do. The owner and six employees of Williams, Scott & Associates were arrested for allegedly accusing people of fraud and saying they would be arrested and face criminal charges for not repaying their debts.

The debt collectors also allegedly misrepresented themselves as working under contract for federal and state government agencies, including the Department of Justice and the U.S. Marshals.

The company operated nationwide from 2009 through May 2014 and called itself Warrant Services Association

2. Threaten to Have You Arrested

Collection agencies cannot falsely claim that you have committed a crime or say you will be arrested if you don’t repay the money they say you owe.

First of all, the agencies cannot issue arrest warrants or have you put in jail. Furthermore, failing to repay a credit card debt, mortgage, car loan, or medical bill in a timely manner doesn't land you in prison. 

That said, if you receive a legitimate order to appear in court on a matter related to a debt and you don’t show up, the judge could issue a warrant for your arrest. And, if you fail to pay a court fine related to your debt, or refuse to pay taxes or child support, you could go to jail.


5 Things Debt Collectors Are Forbidden To Do

3. Publicly Shame You

Debt collectors are not permitted to try to publicly shame you into paying money that you may or may not owe.

In fact, they're not even allowed to contact you by postcard. They cannot publish the names of people who owe money. They can't even discuss the matter with anyone other than you, your spouse, or your attorney.

Debt collectors are permitted to contact third parties to try to track you down, but they’re only allowed to ask those people for your address, home phone number, and place of employment. In most cases, they may not contact those people more than once.

4. Try to Collect Debt You Don’t Owe

Some debt collectors will knowingly or unknowingly rely on incorrect information to try to get money out of you.

The creditor you originally owed money may have sold your debt to a collection agency, which in turn may have sold it to another collection agency. A mistake somewhere along the way could mean that the collector contacting you has incorrect information. 

Demand Information

The agency might be trying to collect a debt from you that has been discharged in bankruptcy or even one that is owed by someone else with a similar name.

Within five days of first contacting you, a debt collector must send you a written notice stating how much you owe, to whom, and how to make your payment. You might have to prompt them to do this.

If you aren’t sure whether you owe a debt, send a letter to the collector via certified mail with a return receipt asking for more information. Be careful not to assume any responsibility for the debt.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides sample letters to debt collectors that you can use to ensure you don't say the wrong thing or give out more information than necessary.

5. Harass You

The law lists specific ways in which debt collectors are not allowed to harass you. They are not permitted to:

  • Threaten you with violence or harm
  • Use obscene or profane language
  • Call you repeatedly
  • Call you before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. without your permission
  • Call you at work, if you forbid it in writing
  • Contact you at all if you tell the collector, in writing, to stop contacting you altogether or to contact only your attorney.

Even if you take these steps, there are still some circumstances that allow debt collectors to contact you again: They can contact you to let you know they will no longer be contacting you or to tell you that a lawsuit has been filed against you.

Don't Fall for This Trick

If you receive a court summons for a lawsuit regarding your debt, don’t ignore it. An unscrupulous debt collector might fabricate such a document, or it might be legitimate.

If you get a summons, look up the court’s contact information online (not on the notice you were sent) and contact the court directly to confirm that the notice is accurate. Don't use the address or phone number on the document you receive.

The Big Exception

There’s an important exception to the FDCPA: In-house debt collectors aren’t subject to it. For example, if you are delinquent on your Macy's credit card bill and Macy's calls you directly, it doesn’t have to follow the rules described in the FDCPA.

Most in-house collectors are for debts that are only a few weeks or months delinquent. After that, the original creditor usually hires a collection agency to collect on its behalf or sells your debt to a debt buyer who gets to keep what it collects.

These two types of collectors are subject to the FDCPA.