Your Rights Under California's Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
This is a general guide and not intended as legal advice.
Debt Not Owed, Not Yours, For Wrong Amount, or Already Paid
If you are contacted by a debt collector about a debt that you do not believe you owe, or that is for the wrong amount, or that is for a bill you already paid, it is important that you respond as soon as possible in writing to dispute the debt: if you don't, the debt collector may keep trying to reach you to collect what they believe is a valid debt, and may even end up suing you for payment of the debt. To dispute a debt, send a letter to the debt collector that says that you are disputing the validity of the debt and asking for written proof of the debt. If you have an explanation or evidence about why you do not owe the debt, for example because you already paid it, you can also include that information. Send the letter by certified mail and keep a copy for your records.
Generally, a creditor is not required to tell you it is referring your account to a debt collection agency. However, a debt collector must provide the following information to you, either in its first contact with you regarding an unpaid bill or in writing within five days after that first contact:
- Amount you owe;
- Name of the creditor; and
- Statement of how to dispute the bill in writing within 30 days.
If possible, you should dispute the debt in writing within 30 days. If you send the letter within 30 days, the debt collector must stop trying to collect the debt until it can show you written proof of the debt or the name and address of the original creditor. (15 United States Code section 15 USC 1692g.)
If you have already paid the bill that the debt collector is trying to collect, you should dispute the debt in writing by explaining that you already paid the bill. Send copies of receipts, copies of canceled checks, and any other information you have to show that the bill was already paid. If you are questioning only a part of the bill, you are still liable for the rest of the bill, if it is a valid debt, and you may wish to make arrangements to pay that part of the bill.
If you are not the person the debt collector is looking for – for example, if your name is the same as the person who owes the bill – explain the mistake in writing as soon as possible. You may be asked to provide a drivers’ license or other proof of identification to show that you are wrong person.
If you are unsure about your legal responsibility for a debt, check with an attorney. To find a lawyer, you can get a referral to a certified lawyer referral service by contacting the California State Bar at (866) 442-2529 (toll-free in California) or (415) 538-2250 (from outside California), or online at www.calbar.ca.gov. Click on the link for “Lawyer Referral Services” on the bottom left hand corner of the page. If you cannot afford a private attorney, you may qualify for legal aid and may want to contact your local legal aid office. To find a legal aid office near you, go to www.lsc.gov and click on the Find Legal Assistance tab.
Harassment and Call Restrictions
Debt collectors cannot use obscene or profane language, threaten to illegally harm you or your property or your reputation, falsely threaten you or threaten you with illegal actions, cause your telephone to ring repeatedly to annoy you, or otherwise harass or abuse you. (California Civil Code sections 1788.10-1788.11; 15 United States Code sections 1692d-1692e.) There is no law that specifically limits the number of calls an agency may make to you, but repeated calls over a short period, which may be annoying or harassing, are prohibited.
Debt collectors cannot make false or misleading statements. For example, they cannot lie about the debt they are collecting or the fact that they are trying to collect debt, and they cannot use words or symbols in their letters that falsely make the letters look like they were issued by an attorney, court, or government agency. (California Civil Code sections 1788.13, 1788.15; 15 United States Code section 1692e.)
Debt collectors cannot call you at unusual or inconvenient times or places. (15 United States Code section 1692c.) Generally, they may only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., but you may ask them to contact you at other times if those hours are inconvenient for you.
Debt collectors can contact you at work unless they know or have reason to know that your employer prohibits you from receiving such communication. However, if you don't want to be contacted at work, you can request that they not telephone or send you notices at work. Be sure to make your request in writing, send it by certified mail, and keep a copy for your records.
Debt collectors may send you notices or letters, but the envelopes cannot contain information about your debt or other information that is intended to embarrass you. (California Civil Coe section 1788.12.)
You may also ask a debt collector to contact you only by mail. Make your request in writing, send it by certified mail, and keep a copy for your records. You also have the right to ask a debt collector to stop contacting you entirely. The request must be in writing, and you should send it by certified mail and keep a copy for your records. If you make this request, the debt collector can only contact you to confirm it will stop contacting you and to notify you that it may take action against you. (15 United States Code section 1692c.) Remember, though, that if you request no contact at all, the debt collector may take you to court and may still report your debt to credit reporting agencies.
Collector Contacting Your Employer or Other People
A debt collector may contact your employer, but only for the following reasons:
- To verify your employment;
- To get your location information;
- To garnish your wages, but only after you have been taken to court and the court entered a judgment against you;
- If the debt is a medical debt, to find out whether you have medical insurance; or
- If you or your attorney has agreed in writing that the debt collector may contact your employer.
A debt collector may call your employer once, without prior written contact, to verify your employment. Health care providers and their agents may also call your employer to find out whether you have medical insurance. Otherwise, the debt collector must contact your employer in writing. If the collector receives no response to its written communication within 15 days, itmay contact your employer by other means. (California Civil Code section 1788.11.)
Generally, a debt collector cannot contact your family, neighbors, or other people about your debt, unless:
- You or your attorney have agreed in writing that the debt collector may contact other people;
- The debt collector is contacting other people to get your location information;
- A court has given the debt collector permission to contact other people; or
- It is reasonably necessary to give effect to a judicial remedy after you have been taken to court and the court entered a judgment against you.
(15 United States Code section 1692b-1692c.) A debt collector can contact your attorney and, if otherwise allowed by law, consumer reporting agencies about your debt. (15 United States Code section 1692c.) A debt collector may also contact your spouse and, if you are under 18 years old or live with your parents or guardian, you parents and guardian. (California Civil Code section 1788.11.)
If you are unable to pay the whole amount of a debt, you may request that the debt collector make a payment agreement with you to allow regular payments to pay the debt in full. Make your request in writing, send it by certified mail, and keep a copy for your records. Although the debt collector is not required to accept a payment agreement, many collectors will try to make arrangements if you fully explain your situation.
However, do not make a payment arrangement for more than you can afford to pay just to get the collector to stop calling you. If you make an arrangement with a debt collector and then fail to make the payments, the collector may cancel the agreement, demand payment in full, and possibly even sue you for the full remaining amount.
Also, it is important to send your payments directly to the debt collector.
Neither you nor the debt collector is required to sign a written contract, but either of you may ask the other to sign. If there is no written contract, and the debt collector doesn't want to sign one, you may protect yourself by writing them a letter (sent by certified mail) stating the terms you have agreed upon and enclosing your first payment. Tell them in your letter that if they don't agree with the terms you have described there, they should write back to you telling you what they do agree to accept. Keep a copy of your letter or any payment agreement that you sign.
If you cannot make a payment, contact the collector before you miss a payment or send a partial payment, if possible. Explain the problem and what you plan to do to solve it and catch up on your payments. Many collectors will work with you, especially if you have already made several payments on time.
There is no law preventing a debt collector from requesting a postdated check; however, a few restrictions apply. Debt collectors cannot ask you to provide a postdated check for the purpose of threatening or instituting criminal prosecution. If you send a check dated more than five days ahead, the debt collector must send you written notice three to ten business days before it cashes the check. A debt collector cannot deposit or threaten to deposit a postdated check before the date on the check. (15 United States Code section 1692f.) In order to protect yourself, write the word “Postdated” above the date on the check if you send a postdated check.
Some debt collectors supply information on debts they are collecting to credit reporting agencies such as Experian, Equifax, or Trans Union. However, a debt collector cannot threaten to report your debt to a credit reporting agency unless it actually intends to do so and unless the information it is reporting is true. (California Civil Cod section 1788.13; 15 United States Code section 1692e(8).) The debt collector must also tell the reporting agency if you dispute a debt (if you give the debt collector written notification that you do not owe the debt, that the debt is for the wrong amount, or that you have already paid the debt), and it must update your record to show when the debt is paid.
Interest and Other Charges.
A debt collector can collect interest, fees, charges, or other expenses to your debt, but if only if that is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law. (15 United States Code section 1692f.) An attorney should be able to tell you how much the debt collector can legally charge you. You are also entitled to an explanation from the debt collector as to how much they are charging you and why. Ask them by letter to explain to you in writing.
File A Consumer Complaint
If you believe that a debt collector has violated the law, you can file a complaint with the Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit. Consumer complaints are valuable to the Attorney General’s Office because they alert us to debt collection issues and other issues that California consumers face. We may forward a copy of your complaint to the debt collector; however, please be aware that the Attorney General’s Office cannot represent individuals or give legal advice.
You may also wish to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This agency enforces the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FTC may be contacted by mail at Consumer Response Center, Washington, DC 20580-0001, or by telephone at 1(877)-FTC-HELP, or at FTC Complaint Assistant.
For legal advice, please consult a lawyer. To find a lawyer, you can get a referral to a certified lawyer referral service by contacting the California State Bar at (866) 442-2529 (toll-free in California) or (415) 538-2250 (from outside California), or online at www.calbar.ca.gov. Click on the link for “Lawyer Referral Services” on the bottom left hand corner of the page. If you cannot afford a private attorney, you may qualify for legal aid and may want to contact your local legal aid office. To find a legal aid office near you, go to www.lsc.gov and click on the Find Legal Assistance tab.