Harassing collection calls

How to stop collection calls from a harassing debt collector

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you the right to stop collection calls. All you have to do is send the debt collector a letter telling them to cease all communications. There is no magic language required--just say in plain-English that you don't want them to contact you anymore. Keep a copy of the letter for your records and mail it certified with a return receipt so you can prove that the collector received it. Once the collector receives your letter, they must stop contacting you immediately. There are a few caveats here, though:

  • If you want to resolve the debt, you may not want to stop all calls. If your goal is to work something out with the debt collector, you probably want to keep the lines of communication open. But if you can't afford to pay or if the debt collector harasses you, it may make sense to cease all future calls.

  • The cease request will not stop any legal action. The FDCPA only requires that the debt collector cease communications with you. Courts have found that a person's cease request does not require a collector to stop or forego any collection lawsuits or garnishments.

  • The cease request only applies to the collector you send it to. Many debt collectors will respond to a cease letter by transferring the account to a different debt collector. In most cases, your cease request to the first debt collector won't apply to a subsequent debt collector. You will likely have to send that subsequent collector another cease letter.

  • Debt collection scammers may not honor your letter. Unfortunately, there are a few debt collection scammers out there. These fraudsters are just trying to get your money--there may not even be valid debt. Compliance with the FDCPA is not a high priority for a scammer, so they probably won't honor your cease request. The best thing to do with these scammers is to make it clear to them that you refuse to pay.

  • If a debt collector receives your cease letter and continues to contact you, they've probably violated the FDCPA. One of the most important rights the FDCPA gives a person is the right to stop collection calls. If a collector violates this right, they should be held accountable for their illegal conduct. Consider talking to a lawyer in your area who sues debt collectors under the FDCPA.

How to stop collection calls to your cell phone

Few things are more annoying than repeated debt collection calls to your cell phone. Often, these calls are made by an automatic dialer. It's not unheard of for people to get 10 or more of these robocalls per day. This is incredibly frustrating if you rely on your cell phone for work or to keep tabs on your children. The good news is that there are a couple ways to stop these annoying robocalls.

Verbally tell the collector to stop the robocalls

You should first figure out if the collection calls to your cell phone are being made by an autodialer. You can usually spot a robocall if there is a pause or click before a person comes on the line. An automated message is also a clear sign of an autodialed call. If the collection calls are robocalls, there is a powerful federal law called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act that protects you. The TCPA forbids anyone from using an autodialer to call your cell phone without your consent. In most debt collection situations, consent is given in the fine print of the terms and conditions of the credit agreement. Most credit agreements have language buried in them that gives the creditor your consent to robocall your cell phone. This consent is then passed on to the debt collector if you fall behind on your payments.

Fortunately, the TCPA gives you the right to revoke your consent to autodialed calls at any time and in any reasonable way. This includes revoking your consent verbally over the phone. All you have to do is tell the collection representative that you are revoking your consent to robocall your cell phone. Under the TCPA, they have to stop the autodialed calls immediately.

Write a letter demanding that the collection calls to your cell phone stop

Even though you can make the autodialed calls stop by verbally revoking your consent, there are two drawbacks to that approach. First, it can be difficult to prove a verbal statement. Second, the TCPA only allows you to revoke your consent to autodialed calls. The collector is free to continue calling your cell phone as long as they manually dial the calls.

Thankfully, there is another federal law that regulates debt collection calls: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Under the FDCPA, you have the right to stop all calls from a debt collector by writing the collector and requesting that they stop calling you. This letter doesn't have to be fancy. Just make sure to include your full name and your account number if you have it so that the collector can properly identify your file. All the letter has to say is that you want the collection calls to stop. You should list the all of the phone numbers that you no longer wish to receive calls on. If you want to continue to get collection calls on a certain phone number, you should say so. If you want to only get calls at a certain time, you should say that too. Under the FDCPA, the debt collector has to comply with these requests or face possible legal action.

In some cases, you can sue the collector to make the robocalls stop

Although not all collection calls to your cell phone are against the law, some of them are. And the penalties for illegal autodialed calls are significant. Under the TCPA, the collector must pay you between $500 and $1,500 per call for each offending robocall. The court will also issue an injunction against the collector forbidding further autodialer calls. Here's how you know if debt collection robocalls are illegal:

  • The collection calls were made with an autodialer. Under the TCPA, an autodialer is anything that "has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and to dial such numbers." The Federal Communications Commission has made it clear that this definition is very broad and covers most, if not all, of the popular dialing software used by debt collectors.

  • As technology advances, though, this issue is becoming more complex. Some courts have said that even if an autodialer is involved, if it requires some human intervention to make the call, then the calls aren't barred by the TCPA. It's no surprise, therefore, that debt collection industry vendors are currently designing software that requires some human intervention in an effort to evade the TCPA. The FCC, however, has signaled that it doesn't approve of these efforts to exploit the spirit of the law, so future rule making may be coming.

  • The robocalls were made to your cell phone. The TCPA only prohibits robocalls to wireless phones. Most autodialed debt collection calls to a landline are permitted.

  • You've revoked your consent OR you never consented in the first place. Robocalls to your cell phone are only illegal if you didn't consent to them. As noted above, in the context of debt collection consent is typically given in the credit agreement. That consent, however, can be revoked verbally or in writing. Once you've revoked your consent, all future robocalls to your cell phone violate the TCPA and you're entitled to $500 to $1,500 for each illegal call.

It's also possible that you've never given consent for the collection calls to your cell phone. This most often happens when the collector is trying to reach the previous owner of your cell phone number. Because you never consented to any of these wrong-number calls, you can enforce your rights under the TCPA without first revoking your consent.

Can a debt collector call me at work?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act strictly regulates collection calls while a person is at work. The Act recognizes that you have a right to keep your personal financial information private and that it's difficult to maintain that privacy while you're at the office. If you're getting collection calls at work, here's what you need to know.

The FDCPA only applies to “debt collectors” collecting “consumer debts”

The FDCPA only covers a debt collector that is collecting a debt for someone else. It does not apply to a creditor collecting its own debts. So if the calls are from a bank or credit card company that is collecting its own debts, the FDCPA doesn’t apply. But the FDCPA does apply to collection agencies, debt buyers, and law firms who are collecting debts for someone else.

In addition, the FDCPA only applies when the debt being collected is a consumer debt. This is a debt used for personal, family, or household purposes. If the debt was incurred for a business, the FDCPA doesn’t apply.

Collection calls at work are illegal if the collector knows that your employer prohibits them

The FDCPA doesn't expressly forbid a debt collector from calling you while you're at work. But if the collector knows that your employer doesn't allow you to take calls on the job, then the FDCPA prohibits further calls. For example, let's say that you're a nurse and you're not allowed to make personal calls during your shifts. Knowing this, you tell a collector not to call you at work. Once you've told the collector this, any further collection calls while you're at work probably violate the FDCPA. There's no special language that you have to use to notify the collector that your employer forbids calls. It's enough to tell the collector that you can't talk while you're at work.

Depending on your job, you may not even be required to tell the collector that you can't take collection calls at work. For example, some jobs--such as manufacturing, health care, and teaching--so obviously don't allow the employee to take personal calls at work that a debt collector should know that calls are prohibited without being told.

Collection calls to someone else at your work are almost always illegal

Although the FDCPA doesn't prohibit all collection calls to you while you're at work, it does prohibit most calls to someone else at your employer. So most collection calls to your co-workers are illegal, especially if the collector discusses your debt with the co-worker. There is an exception if the debt collector is calling a your employer to enforce a court judgment. For example, a collector may call your human resources department to discuss a pending wage garnishment against you.

How to use the FDCPA to stop illegal collection calls to your workplace

The FDCPA gives you the power to sue a debt collector that violates the law. It's a great way to stop illegal collection calls to your work and to hold the debt collector accountable for its illegal conduct. Under the FDCPA, a successful claim gets you:

  • Up to $1,000 in statutory damages (even if you've suffered no monetary loss);

  • Provable actual damages (including for emotional distress);

  • Your attorney fees and court costs must be paid by the collector

Most consumer lawyers handle FDCPA lawsuits on a contingency fee. This means that you don't pay any fees unless your attorney recovers money for you and those fees come from the collector's pocket, not yours. Congress wrote the FDCPA this way to incentivize people to enforce the FDCPA and help the government regulate debt collectors and ensure compliance with the law.

Can a debt collector call my friends and family about my debt?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act generally forbids collection calls to friends and family. In fact, collection calls to most third-parties are illegal. There are some exceptions to this general rule, though. Here's what you need to know if a debt collector is talking to someone else about your debt.

The FDCPA only applies to "debt collectors" collecting "consumer debts"

The FDCPA only covers a debt collector that is collecting a debt for someone else. It does not apply to a creditor collecting its own debts. So if the calls are from a bank or credit card company that is collecting its own debts, the FDCPA doesn't apply. But the FDCPA does apply to collection agencies, debt buyers, and law firms who are collecting debts for someone else.

In addition, the FDCPA only applies when the debt being collected is a consumer debt. This is a debt used for personal, family, or household purposes. If the debt was incurred for a business, the FDCPA doesn't apply.

The FDCPA generally prohibits a debt collector from "communicating" with a third party

Under the FDCPA, a debt collector "may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer..." Although this language seems straightforward, it's important to understand what it means to "communicate" under the FDCPA. The Act defines "communication" as the conveying of information about a debt. So a missed call to your boyfriend, without a voicemail, is probably not a communication. But if the collector leaves your boyfriend a message or actually talks to him, it's likely to be considered a communication for the purpose of the FDCPA.

Communications with certain third parties are allowed

There are a couple of exceptions to the general prohibition against collection calls to friends and family. For example, the FDCPA allows a debt collector to communicate with a couple of different people without violating the law. These people include:

  • your attorney

  • the debt collector's attorney

  • the creditor (ie. the debt collector's client)

  • the creditor's attorney

  • a credit reporting agency, if otherwise allowed by law (ie. Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, etc);

A collector may also communicate with your employer if it's reasonably necessary to enforce a court judgment. For example, the FDCPA allows a debt collector to call your employer and confirm that you work there so that they can garnish your wages.

A collector may also communicate with a third-party to learn your contact information

Another exception to the general rule against third-party communications is the "location information" exception. The FDCPA allows debt collectors to place collection calls to friends and family to learn your location information. Location information is your address and phone number. But this call is strictly regulated:

  • the collector must identify himself and tell your friend that he is confirming your location information;

  • the collector can't identify his employer unless your friend asks;

  • the collector can't tell your friend that you owe a debt or discuss the details of the debt;

  • in most cases, the collector can't ask your friend to have you call the collector back;

  • in most cases, the collector only gets to make this "location information" call one time

It also follows that if the collector already knows your address and phone number, then it can't call a third-party for your location information.

If collection calls to friends and family are illegal, why do collectors do it?

Although it violates the FDCPA, many debt collectors use this tactic because it's profitable. If you're like most people, you're understandably embarrassed by not being able to make ends meet. It's stressful enough to suffer this embarrassment privately. But when a debt collector tells your friend or family member that you aren't paying your bills, your private embarrassment quickly turns into semi-public humiliation. Debt collectors know this and use the third-party calls to put pressure on you to make a payment. Debt collectors also know that most consumers don't know about their rights under the FDCPA, so there is little chance that the consumer will do anything about the illegal third party calls. Rather than paying the debt collector to make the third party calls stop, it may be best to discuss your situation with a consumer lawyer. Paying the shady debt collector will only encourage him to keep breaking the law. But a consumer lawyer can help you hold the debt collector accountable by bringing a FDCPA lawsuit on your behalf. After being sued for violating the FDCPA, most debt collectors will think twice about violating it again.

Stop collection calls for someone else's debt

On of the most frequent consumer complaints received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are annoying collection calls for someone else. It's unclear whether these collectors are intentionally pursuing the wrong person or that they've made a mistake. But if you're getting calls or letters from a collector for someone else's debt, you probably don't care why it's happening, you just want the collection attempts to stop. Here are some suggestions to stop collection calls for someone else.

Collection calls for someone else

If a debt collector is calling or writing you about a debt that you don't owe, the first thing you should do is tell them very clearly that they have the wrong person and that this is someone else's debt. Be polite but firm. The collector may ask you to confirm the last four digits of your social security number or a similar personal identifier. While it may be unwise to give the collector your full social security number, there probably isn't too much risk in giving them  the last four digits to confirm that the debt isn't yours. The collector may ask you if you know the actual account-holder and how to reach them. While you're under no obligation to do so, you may consider passing along the other person's information if you know it.

In addition to verbally telling the collector that it is someone else's debt, you may consider sending a follow-up letter confirming what you told them. Identify yourself in the letter and then write something like: "you called me on this date at this number. I am not the person who owes this debt. Please stop contacting me." If you know any details about the account in question, include a reference to those in your letter to be sure the collector can properly identify the account. Send this letter certified mail with a return receipt and keep a copy of the letter and receipt for your records.

You should also keep detailed records of any additional collection attempts after you've notified the collector that the debt isn't yours. Keep track of the time, dates, and duration of any additional calls and save any voice messages. If you think the calls are robocalls, make a note of that and why you think so. Also, keep copies of any letters or other documents that they send you.

It's also a good idea to check your credit reports to make sure the other person's debt isn't listed on your reports. Use Annual Credit Report to get free copies of your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies. Once you have the reports, make sure that the other person's account isn't showing up on your credit report. If it is, you should send a dispute letter to each of the credit bureaus incorrectly reporting that account. Take a look at this post for more information about how to dispute incorrect information on your credit report.

If you've told the debt collector that you are not the right person and continue to get collection calls for someone else, it's time to talk to a consumer rights attorney to discuss the situation in more detail. In addition to helping you stop the collection attempts, a consumer attorney can advise you whether you have any claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act against the debt collector. If the debt doesn't belong to you, you've told the collector that, and the collector still keeps calling, it deserves to get sued under the FDCPA and be held accountable for harassing an innocent consumer.

Collection lawsuit for a debt that isn't yours

If you get served with a collection lawsuit for someone else's debt, you need to take additional steps. You should do everything suggested above, but you also have to submit an answer to the lawsuit. In Minnesota, the answer must be submitted within 20 days. An answer is a formal legal document that responds to each of the allegations in the complaint. If the debt isn't yours, you should be able to deny most of the allegations in the lawsuit. You should also note somewhere in your answer that the debt is someone else's. Even if you don't owe the debt, you have to answer the lawsuit. Failure to respond to the lawsuit will likely result in a default judgment against you. A default judgment can be difficult (and expensive) to overturn, even if the debt isn't yours. It may also lead to garnishments and other unpleasantness.

Because the consequences of a collection lawsuit are quite serious, you should strongly consider discussing your situation with a consumer lawyer. A consumer lawyer can help you prepare an answer to the lawsuit and also advise you if you have possible counterclaims against the debt collector for pursuing the wrong person.

Use the TCPA to stop wrong number robocalls

Unwanted robocalls and texts are one of the most frequent consumer complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission. In 2014 alone, the FCC received about 215,000 complaints about autodialer calls and texts. These calls are particularly annoying when the caller is trying to reach someone else. Often, these wrong number robocalls are from debt collectors trying to collect a debt from the previous user of a phone number or from telemarketers pushing their products. In response to the overwhelming number of consumer complaints, the FCC recently strengthened consumer protections against wrong number robocalls by clarifying the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The TCPA is a federal law that prohibits auto-dialed calls to your cellular phone without your consent. Until recently, however, there was a loophole of sorts for wrong number robocalls. Callers could argue that they had the consent of the person they were trying to reach and that was good enough to satisfy the TCPA's consent requirement.

Thankfully, the FCC closed this loophole. The FCC has made clear that callers are liable for robocalls to reassigned numbers when the current subscriber of the number has not consented, even if the caller has no notice of the reassignment. This reaffirms the TCPA's basic premise of giving consumers control over the calls that they receive.

Under the TCPA, you can obtain an order from a court that requires the caller to stop placing wrong number robocalls to your cell phone. In addition, the TCPA provides for damages of at least $500 per illegal robocall. This $500/call penalty is designed to deter illegal robocalls and to incentivize consumers to help the FCC enforce the TCPA through private lawsuits.

Dealing with payday loan collectors

Many of us, if we're lucky, have been living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes the paychecks don't come soon enough and we're forced to swim with the sharks of the payday loan industry. These loans are terrible for myriad reasons. For instance, the interest rates on these loans can be as high as 900%. No, that is not a typo. NINE HUNDRED PERCENT!!! This extreme interest can make it nearly impossible for struggling people to ever break free from the clutches of a payday lender. The main issue I wanted to touch on today is what can happen in the months and years after you've paid off a payday lender. We're getting a lot of calls lately from people who've received harassing phone calls. The callers claim that the individual owes a debt to a payday lender, though they rarely identify who the lender is. They then proceed to threaten that criminal charges are pending and the only way to avoid jail is to pay up immediately. Or they say they will send someone to the debtor's residence to seize money or goods. Definitely a menacing prospect.

We think most of these calls are flat-out scams. The payday lenders have either sold their customer information to shady third parties or their data has been hacked. The callers often have a lot of information about the individuals, including their addresses and social security numbers. They often use this information to convince people of their legitimacy. They also prey on the fact that people who've used payday lenders in the past know from experience that these debts are difficult to pay off in full and that even a $1 balance can skyrocket quickly.

Whatever you do, don't agree to pay these collectors over the telephone. Do not give them any personal information about yourself or any of your financial accounts. Demand that they tell you the name of the payday lender you allegedly borrowed this debt from and that they put their demand in writing and mail it to you. Also, take notes on the call. Write down the number they've called from and the name the caller gave you (99 times out of 100, this will not be his/her real name). Note whether or not they spoke the phrase, "This call is from a debt collector and is an attempt to collect a debt," and make sure to write down any specific threats the caller made.

As soon as you are off the phone, we recommend contacting a consumer attorney or the state Attorney General's office. If the call is a scam, either should be able to tell you that and advise you on next steps.

Can a debt collector leave messages on my voicemail?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) makes it illegal for a debt collector to communicate with any person other than you or your attorney about your debt. When a debt collector leaves a message on your answering machine (does anyone have these anymore?) or voicemail, it runs the risk that other people will overhear that a debt collector is contacting you. Embarrassing, right? According to FDCPA case law here in Minnesota, if a debt collector leaves a voicemail and mentions that you owe a debt, it may be breaking the law if a third party overhears it. If so, you may be entitled to $1,000 statutory damages plus any actual damages you incurred (such as emotional distress damages for invading of your privacy). The best part? You get your attorney's fees from the debt collector.

How to stop fraudulent debt collection calls

I occasionally get calls from people dealing with debt collection scammers. The scammers acquire an innocent consumer's contact information and begin bombarding him with debt collection calls. The callers, who usually call from overseas with a VOIP phone line, make blatantly illegal threats, such as threatening to have the consumer arrested. When I talk to victims of this scam, I usually explain the nature of the scam and tell them that an FDCPA lawsuit isn't appropriate because there's no way to identify the scammers. But I've never really had a good answer for making the annoying calls stop. Until now, that is, thanks to "Steve". Steve (it's not his real name) was an innocent consumer suffering from this very problem. Rather than live with the harassing calls, Steve decided to set up a website with information about how to put a stop to the calls. Here's his tips for protecting yourself:

  • Inform your employer.  You are likely getting calls at home and/or at work, so make sure your employer is aware the calls are part of a scam and to not take them seriously.  Advise the callers that they are no longer allowed to call you at work.  If they continue to call, document the date and time of the calls you received.  Save voice mails left if at all possible.

  • Change your number(s).  For some this may not be an option, for others a one-time number change can be done free of charge.

  • Use Google Voice.  Google Voice is a great replacement voice mail system for just about any phone number you use.  Messages can be transcribed and voice mail recordings can be saved as mp3 files. Pro Tip - call the fraudsters with a Google Voice number before turning off your old phone numbers.  Make sure when you call you identify yourself so they can start up their script.  At any point after they have your information pulled up just hang up.  They will then start religiously calling your Google Voice number.  At this point, you are free to change your regular phone number(s) and enjoy not having these people ever call you again. 

Can a debt collector call my parents about my debt?

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors can only communicate with you or your attorney about your debt. There's a very narrow exception that allows debt collectors to contact third parties, such as your parents, but only to obtain location information. Location information means your address and telephone number. During this conversation, the debt collector must tell your parents that he is attempting to confirm your location information, he can't tell them that you owe a debt, and he is only allowed to identify his employer if asked. Of course, your parents have no obligation to give the debt collector your address and telephone number. And once the debt collector has your location information, there is no permissible reason under the FDCPA to contact your parents, or any third party for that matter. In other words, if you've already talked to a debt collector and he knows how to contact you, it's a violation of the FDCPA for him to call a third party because he already knows your location information.

It's fairly common for debt collectors to contact people's parents about their debt. And it's not just college students and recent college graduates. I've had clients in their 40's and 50's whose elderly parents were called by debt collectors. I suppose it's possible that some debt collectors contact consumers' parents by mistake. But I also think that some debt collectors call people's parents as a collection tactic to put pressure on the consumer to pay the debt. Either way, its a violation of the FDCPA, unless it falls under the very narrow "location information" exception described above.

Can I record phone calls from debt collectors?

If you've been getting harassing calls from debt collectors, you can fight back by recording your phone calls to catch them in the act and prove they've violated the FDCPA. Depending on what state you live in, it may or may not be legal to tape-record your phone calls. Minnesota is a one-party consent state, meaning that you can record a phone call without another party's consent, as long as you are one of the parties to the call (you can't record a call between two other people). Your cell phone may have a recording feature. Otherwise, you can buy a telephone tape recorder for a pretty reasonable amount of money.

There are two types of recorders we've used in the past. One is designed for landlines. It has a telephone cord input and output, and you just run the phone cord in and out of the device. Here's an example.

The other is designed for cell phones. This is an adapter that plugs into a regular recording device. It comes with an earpiece that you insert into the ear you're holding your phone up to. It picks up both ends of the conversation through the sound coming out of the receiver. Here's an example of one of these.

Even if you live in two-party consent state--one where you are not allowed to record calls without the other party's consent--here's a little trick. You know how debt collectors sometimes play a recorded message saying "This call may be recorded for quality purposes?" Try using the very same line on them. If they don't hang up, you can feel free to tape away. At the very least you may confuse the caller too much to give you any trouble.

Don't put up with harassing debt collection calls at work

One common debt collection technique is for a debt collector to call you at work. Even worse is when a debt collector calls your co-workers or boss and reveals that you owe a debt. This is not only embarrassing, but in some cases, it can lead to you losing your job.

Fortunately, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from doing this. The FDCPA is a federal law that regulates what debt collectors can and can't do to collect a debt. Under the FDCPA, debt collectors cannot call you at work once you've told them not to. If you want a debt collector to stop calling you at work, write a brief letter stating that you no longer want to be called at work. Send the letter via certified mail so you can prove the debt collector received it. If the debt collector continues to call you at work after receiving your letter, they've violated the FDCPA.

Similarly, debt collectors cannot call your co-workers or boss, or any third-party for that matter. There is a narrow exception to this rule. Debt collectors can call third parties to find out your phone number and address. They cannot reveal that you owe a debt during this conversation and once they have your address and phone number, they can no longer call any third parties. If a debt collector calls your co-workers or boss for any other reason, they've violated the FDCPA.

If a debt collector violates the FDCPA, you are entitled to sue them and recover money damages. Most consumer lawyers will accept FDCPA cases on a contingency, which means you will not pay any attorneys fees unless you win.