Debt Collectors

If you receive a notice from a debt collector, it’s important to respond as soon as possible—even if you do not owe the debt—because otherwise the collector may continue trying to collect the debt, report negative information to credit reporting companies, and even sue you.

If you get a summons notifying you that a debt collector is suing you, don’t ignore it—if you do, the collector may be able to get a default judgment against you (that is, the court enters judgment in the collector’s favor because you didn’t respond to defend yourself) and garnish your wages and bank account. Make sure you respond by the date specified in the court papers so you can preserve the right to defend yourself. If you are sued, you may want to consult an attorney. For information on how to find an attorney, see Attorneys/Lawyers.

Whether or not you owe a debt, you have certain rights under the law to protect you against abusive, unfair, or deceptive debt collection practices. Here is information about some common debt collection issues:


Disputing a Debt

If a debt collector contacts you about a debt that you do not owe, that is for the wrong amount, that is for a debt you already paid, or that you want more information about, 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 collect the debt from you and may even end up suing you for payment.

Within five days of a debt collector’s first contact with you, it must send you a written notice, called a “validation notice,” that tells you (1) the amount it thinks you owe, (2) the name of the creditor, and (3) how to dispute the debt in writing. Don’t give a debt collector any personal or financial information until it sends you this validation notice—it may be a scam collector.

You should dispute a debt in writing within 30 days of your first contact with the debt collector. If you do so, the debt collector must stop trying to collect the debt until it can show you verification of the debt. You should dispute a debt in writing if:

  • You do not owe the debt;
  • You already paid the debt;
  • You want more information about the debt; or
  • You want the debt collector to stop contacting you or to limit its contact with you.

For sample dispute letters, see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “What should I do when a debt collector contacts me?” If you have already paid the bill that the debt collector is trying to collect, include that explanation in your letter and send copies (but not originals) of any receipts, canceled checks, or other information you have to show that you already paid the bill.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s “Don’t recognize that debt? Here’s what to do”.

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Harassment and Call Restrictions

Debt collectors cannot harass or abuse you. They cannot use obscene language, threaten to illegally harm you or your property, threaten you with illegal actions, or falsely threaten you with actions they do not intend to take. The law does not specifically limit the number of calls debt collectors may make to you, but they cannot make repeated calls over a short period to annoy or harass you.

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 to you that falsely make the letters appear to be from an attorney, court, or government agency.

Debt collectors cannot call you at unusual or inconvenient times or places. Generally, they may call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., but you may ask them to call at other times if those hours are inconvenient for you.

Debt collectors can contact you at your workplace unless they know (or have reason to know) that your employer prohibits you from receiving such communications. However, if you request that debt collectors not contact you at work, they must stop contacting you there. Make sure you send 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 any information that is intended to embarrass you.

You may ask a debt collector to contact you only by mail, or through your attorney, or set other limitations. Make sure you send 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. If you do so, the debt collector can only contact you to confirm that it will stop contacting you and to notify you that it may file a lawsuit or take other action against you. Remember, though, that if you request that a debt collector stop contacting you entirely, it may take you to court over the debt and may still report your debt to credit reporting companies, which will likely hurt your credit.

For information about when a debt collector can contact your employer or other people, see Debt Collector Contacting Your Employer or Other People.

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Debt Collector Contacting Your Employer or Other People

Employers

Debt collectors 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 it sued you and a court entered a judgment against you;
  • If the debt is a medical debt, to find out whether you have medical insurance; or
  • You or your attorney 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. Healthcare providers and their agents may also call your employer to find out if 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, it may call or otherwise contact your employer.

Other People

Generally, a debt collector cannot contact your family, neighbors, or other people about your debt unless:

  • The debt collector is contacting other people to get your location information;
  • A court has given the debt collector permission to contact other people;
  • If, after the debt collector sued you and a court entered judgment against you, it is reasonably necessary to contact other people to effectuate the judgment; or
  • You or your attorney agreed in writing that the debt collector may contact other people.

A debt collector can contact your spouse. If you are under 18 years old or live with your parents or guardian, a debt collector can contact your parents or guardian. A debt collector can also contact your attorney and, if otherwise allowed by law, credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) about your debt.

For more information about debt collection restrictions, see Harassment and Call Restrictions.

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Interest and Other Charges

Debt collectors may collect interest, fees, charges, or other expenses to your debt only if they are expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or are otherwise permitted by law. You are entitled to an explanation from the debt collector about how much they are charging you and why. Send a letter to the debt collector asking for an explanation in writing. For a sample letter requesting information about a debt, see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “What should I do when a debt collector contacts me?”. You may also consult an attorney to find out whether the debt collector is charging you more than allowed by law or by the agreement creating the debt. For information on how to find an attorney, see Attorneys/Lawyers.

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Credit Reporting

Debt collectors may report your debt to credit reporting companies, which put together credit reports that creditors can access when deciding whether to give you credit. However, debt collectors cannot report false information about your debt. If you dispute a debt in writing with a debt collector, that debt collector must tell any credit reporting company that it has reported your debt to that you dispute the debt.

For more information on credit reporting, see Credit Scores and Credit Reports.

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Old (Time-Barred) Debts

Debt collectors may not be able to sue you to collect on old (time-barred) debts, but may still try to collect on those debts. In California, there is generally a four-year limit for filing a lawsuit to collect a debt based on a written agreement. However, it may be hard to figure out when the clock on that period starts to run or can be restarted (for example, a partial payment of the debt may restart the clock), and a debt collector that is time-barred from suing you may still send you collection notices, call you to try to get you to pay, or report your debt to credit reporting companies. If you think your debt may be time-barred, you may want to consult an attorney. For information on how to find an attorney, see Attorneys/Lawyers.

For more information on time-barred debts, see the Federal Trade Commission’s “Time-Barred Debts”.

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Collectors Taking Money from Your Wages, Bank Account, or Benefits

Debt collectors can only take money from your paycheck, bank account, or benefits—which is called garnishment—if they have already sued you and a court entered a judgment against you for the amount of money you owe. The law sets certain limits on how much debt collectors can garnish your wages and bank accounts. Certain federal benefits, such as social security benefits and veterans’ benefits, generally cannot be garnished. For more information about garnishment and what you can do if your bank account or benefits are garnished, see the Federal Trade Commission’s “Garnishing Federal Benefits”.

If you get a summons notifying you that a debt collector is suing you, don’t ignore it. If you do, the collector may be able to get a default judgment against you (that is, the court enters judgment in the collector’s favor because you didn’t respond to defend yourself) and garnish your wages and bank account. If you are sued by a debt collector, you may want to consult an attorney to discuss your options. For information on how to find an attorney, see Attorneys/Lawyers.

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Other Resources

For more information about debt collection and your rights, visit the following website:

  • Federal Trade Commission’s “Dealing With Debt”: Information about managing debt, credit repair, and different debt collection issues.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Debt Collection”: Common questions about debt collection.
  • Federal Trade Commission’s “Fake Debt Collectors”: How to tell if a debt collector is legitimate or a fraudster.

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Reporting a Complaint

If you believe a debt collector is violating the law, you may report your complaint with the Attorney General’s Public Inquiry Unit. Complaints are used by the Attorney General’s Office to learn about misconduct and to determine whether to investigate a company. However, we cannot give legal advice or provide legal assistance to individuals. For information on how to find an attorney to represent you or provide legal assistance, see Attorneys/Lawyers.

You may also report your complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC enforces the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits abusive, unfair, or deceptive debt collection practices.

You may also report your complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which may forward it to the company and work to get you a response.

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