A lot of people dealing with debt collectors ask, “How do I get a debt collector to stop calling me?” or “How can I make a bill collector stop calling?” or “Debt collectors won’t stop calling, how do I make them stop?” The truth is, all you have to do to make a debt collector stop calling is ask them to stop. However, you have to ask them in the right way, which we’ll show you below. And a hidden secret is that making them stop contacting you altogether is actually a very bad idea.
Telling a debt collector “Stop contacting me” in a registered letter will make them stop, because the law says they have to obey that request and because the registered letter gives you proof. However, it’s a very bad idea to shut off all lines of communication with a debt collector. That’s because the debt collector will be left with no means of collecting the debt short of taking you to court, and since you’ve removed any way for them to warn you they’re preparing a lawsuit, you won’t see it coming.
The only guaranteed way to really make the debt collector problem go away for good is, of course, to pay the debt you owe. However, doing this is obviously easier said than done. Consumers in need of help should seek the aid of a nonprofit credit counseling service through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Click here to visit their website or call 800-388-2227.
For this article, we contacted Bruce McClary, a former debt collector who has worked on the nonprofit side of the consumer credit counseling industry for the past 16 years and now sits as acting Vice President of Public Relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Bruce’s unique insights from all sides of the debt collection industry should give people the full picture on the ins and outs of how to deal with debt collectors.
This and several other great tips for dealing with debt collectors are outlined below. Here’s our list of 14 tips:
- Know your rights.
- Report violations of your rights.
- Keep detailed records of all communications with debt collectors.
- Don’t agree to do anything you can’t actually do.
- Beware of scams.
- Before you agree to a deal, get the debt collector to put it in writing.
- Don’t talk with debt collectors about anything except how much you can pay them and when.
- Understand the real consequences for missing deadlines.
- Watch for dirty caller ID tricks.
- Don’t shut off communication entirely.
- Specify how a debt collector can contact you.
- Be proactive.
- Let the debt collector know you know the rules.
- Use a nonprofit credit counselor from the NFCC.
1. Know Your Rights
The first thing to do when you think you might be a victim of harassment by a debt collector is to identify whether it’s actually a violation of the law. There are a lot of things debt collectors do that might not qualify as illegal, though they’re extremely annoying. There are other things debt collectors do that actually cross the line and violate the law. You need to know what those things are and how to report them.
All consumers are protected by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from:
- Using threats, abusive language or obscene language.
- Harassing you with too many calls. This generally means a debt collector can’t make one call after another throughout the day. A debt collector who calls once per day is not harassing you unless you specify in writing that you want them to stop.
- Calling before 8 a.m. or calling after 9 p.m. unless you agree that it’s okay to do so.
- Calling you at work after you’ve asked them to stop. In some states debt collectors can’t call you at work to begin with.
- Talking to anyone but you, your attorney or a credit reporting bureau about your debt. Sometimes debt collectors will try to get information on you from people you know, but if they mention your debt in doing so, they’ve crossed the line. According to McClary, some debt collectors will actually call a neighbor and make up a story about an emergency to get the neighbor to go get the person and bring them to the phone. “Any kind of misrepresentation about the circumstances of the call is a violation and people need to report these things,” McClary says.
- Misrepresenting the size of your debt.
- Threatening to send you to jail or to cause other law enforcement action.
- Falsely claiming to be a law enforcement official or an attorney.
- Falsely claiming to be a representative of a credit bureau.
- Threatening to take legal action unless they actually plan to do so.
- Threatening to seize property or garnish wages unless they actually intend to do it.
- Depositing a post dated check too early.
State Laws Also Limit What Debt Collectors Can Do
In addition to the FDCPA, many states have other restrictions on what debt collectors can and can’t do. You can look up your state’s specific restrictions on debt collection practices by visiting your state attorney general’s website. They may have a page that lists specific debt collection laws for your state. If they don’t have such a page, it’s worth picking up the phone and giving your state’s attorney general’s office a call to ask for the information in person.
2. Report Violations of Your Rights
Reporting violations of the law by debt collectors is very important. It’s not just a matter of knowing the violations. It’s a matter of reporting them, as well as reporting violations of the law in your particular state.
If a debt collector violates a state law while trying to collect your debt, you need to contact the state’s attorney general’s office directly. To find contact information for your state’s attorney general’s office, click here.
If a debt collector violates the FDCPA specifically, that’s a violation of federal law and you need to report it to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) and let them know what happened.
To report a violation of the FDCPA, click here. Or call (855) 411-CFPB to report a violation by phone.
“The CFPB’s database of complaints is public, it’s on their website and you can see the kinds of complaints that come in and I’m telling you, that database grows exponentially month to month.” says McClary. “It’s worth checking out the database, but it’s worth knowing that you can report these violations directly to the federal government and they will investigate.”
The FTC has a complaints page as well and consumers can submit complaints to that page, but according to McClary, the CFPB is doing a great job putting together their database, making it publicly available and taking steps to enforce violations by taking action and investigating complaints.
“Every complaint that comes in, they reach out and they’ll try to contact the collection agency or the lender themselves and try to get some resolution pretty quickly,” says McClary.
One Type of Violation is When Debt Collectors Reveal Your Private Information to Others
An example of one type of violation, imagine a debt collector shares your personal, private financial information with someone other than your legal representative or a credit reporting agency.
When debt collectors call your neighbors, friends, family, boss or coworkers, they’re trying to do a few things. First, they’re trying to figure out how to reach you directly. They’re also trying to find out whether you’re gainfully employed. If they have all that information: where you work, where you live, up to date contact information for you and your employer, that gives them a way to take things to the next step if they don’t work things out directly with you. Ultimately what they’re trying to do is lay the groundwork for legal action that gives them the ability to garnish your wages, if you live in a state where your wages can be garnished.
The ways they go about getting that information can sometimes fall outside the rules set down in the FDCPA. As an example, a debt collector is in violation of the law if they talk about your debt to other people in your life that have no connection to the account or the amount you owe at all. These people in your life should not be given any information about the debt, because it’s your private, personal financial information. The debt collector has no legal right to disclose that to anyone except the people named on the account or their legal representatives or a credit reporting bureau.
3. Keep Detailed Records of All Communications With Debt Collectors
As soon as a violation occurs, reporting should follow immediately. In doing so, you need to have accurate information. This means keeping logs of all phone calls and keeping copies of all letters, as well as saving any emails or text messages you’re getting from debt collectors. If they’re trying to contact you via social media, save all of that. Keep detailed records. That’s very important, especially if you’re reporting any violations, because you want to have as much proof on your side as possible. For the phone calls, keep a log of those phone calls, the time, the date and the name of the person who’s calling you. Also write down the length of the call. Any other information you can add into that log is very helpful if action is taken in response to a violation.
Voicemail as Evidence
Be creative about the use of voicemail. Try to route calls from an abusive debt collector to voicemail as much as possible. If you have an experience with a debt collector where they’re screaming and yelling and threatening you, the next time they call you can let the call go to voicemail. Maybe what they leave in the voicemail after that conversation can be further incrimination.
According to McClary, there was a case in New York a few years back against a debt collector where the person was awarded millions of dollars in a settlement.
“The smoking gun in the situation was a voicemail that had been left by the debt collector where they were using offensive, racist language in their message, shouting and screaming and threatening. It was horrible. It was painful to listen to, but it was what ended up holding this collection agency accountable for the things they were doing in violation of the law. It’s amazing that they left those things on somebody’s voicemail really,” says McClary.
In another case, a woman recorded the actual calls from an abusive debt collector and was awarded $10 million. While it’s doubtful whether she’ll ever collect the money, she did succeed in seeing that the debt collectors were punished for their illegal activity.
A word of warning about recording phone calls: people can’t just record phone calls in any situation. The problem with recording calls from debt collectors is that doing so may create a situation where you’re violating the legal rights of the debt collector.
According to the Digital Media Law Project, federal law allows people to record phone calls as long as one party in the call knows the call is being recorded. However, many state laws prohibit recordings of phone calls unless both parties know the call is being recorded. While you may be in a state that allows recording a phone call if one party knows about the recording, the debt collector may be in a state that requires both parties to know. For that reason, recording calls from debt collectors is a tricky business, legally speaking.
According to McClary, “If you don’t have permission and you’re just secretly recording the call, you’re not really doing yourself any good because you may be violating the law in trying to capture that information.”
Voicemail is a great exception to this rule because with voicemail the caller already knows he or she is being recorded.
All Debt Collectors Are Different
Depending on the agency or the person you’re speaking to, it can be a completely different experience from one debt collector to another. One thing that makes debt collectors frightening for consumers is that you never know who’s going to be on the other end of the line when the phone rings. Sometimes you can be dealing with a very well informed, well trained, knowledgeable debt collector who understands the rules and is adhering to them and also understands that in order for something to work out they need to reach an agreement with you on what’s works best for your financial situation in order to get a payment.
“That’s basically how I did it,” says McClary. “I knew shouting isn’t going to get you anywhere. You just end up back where you started, so it’s better to have a normal conversation with someone and have a reasonable discussion about what is possible within a person’s means to get them to pay the debt. So you could end up with a collector like that or you could end up with a collector who just wants to scream the whole time and call you repeatedly until you’re so annoyed that you’ll just pay them whatever to get them off the phone.”
4. Don’t Agree to Anything You Can’t Actually Do
Sometimes to get a debt collector to stop, people may agree to things that they know they aren’t capable of following through on. That’s what gets a lot of people into trouble. If someone says, “Yes, yes, I’ll pay you, I’ll send you a payment next Monday,” that may stop the calls between now and next Monday, but it only makes things worse after next Monday when you don’t come through with the payment. Then the debt collector is back harassing you even more frequently and louder and more annoying than they were before. Therefore, don’t make any kind of commitment you know you can’t keep if you’re only doing it just to get the calls to stop.
This problem can be even worse if the debt collector gets you to agree to something in writing. Verbal agreements are somewhat fuzzy, but if a debt collector gets you to agree to something in a letter or an email or a text message, or if they get you to visit a website and click a box, they can then show that you took some kind of action to confirm that commitment. In that case, that gives the debt collector one more point to justify going to court or taking some kind of legal action against you. It also makes it more difficult for you to get them to agree to any kind of arrangement later because you’ve already broken one promise. They’re not going to be likely to believe that whatever you promise to do next is something you’ll be able to follow through on.
Says McClary, “That’s a very dangerous game. As a debt collector, I had that happen with some people I was speaking to. Even though I wasn’t screaming and yelling, they just wanted the calls to stop, so they’d say, sure, I’ll go to Western Union and wire you some money next Friday when I get paid and that’ll take care of it. So I’d say okay, but then next Friday would come and they wouldn’t do it, so I’d create a note in their file. Debt collectors are taking notes just like the people getting the calls should be taking notes. The note would go in the system, “Consumer did not comply with commitment to pay Friday,” and again, it’s just one more thing in that system to show that the person owing the money is making false commitments. That can come back hard later on when it’s time to take further action.”
5. Beware of Scams
Unfortunately, there are a lot of scam artists out there who’ll pretend to be debt collectors and call consumers who are hurting in order to cheat them out of money.
“When you’re dealing with a debt collection agency, you want to get them to confirm the debt in writing,” McClary says. “You want them to send you written information showing that you do owe the debt and that you’re legally bound to pay it, because there are so many scams out there where people are calling up, saying they’re a collection agency and getting people to wire money or send money. The person calling may not be a legitimate debt collector. They may just be fishing to scam you out of some money.”
To help you avoid scams run by fake debt collectors, the FDCPA requires that within five days of first calling you, all debt collectors have to send you some kind of information in writing telling you how much you owe, who they are, how to contact them and how to dispute the debt if you don’t think you owe it.
During this whole process you should also be checking your credit report. That’s another way to cross check things. If you need to verify an account, of course you should get the debt collector to send the information in writing. However, you should also pull a copy of your credit report. The debt should show up there. If the person on the phone is telling you accurate information, the info on your credit report should match it. Slight discrepancies in amounts of debts shouldn’t be cause for alarm. However, if you never borrowed money from the creditor named on the phone, that’s a big red flag you may have been targeted by a phony debt collector.
6. Before You Agree to a Deal, Get the Debt Collector to Put it in Writing
Debt collectors may try to pin you down to some kind of agreement in exchange for concessions on their part, then deny they ever made the offer. If a debt collector makes you a payment offer where you can make installment payments to get things on track or especially if they’re offering to settle the debt for less than the full balance, make sure they send you something in writing that confirms they’re willing to keep to that agreement. A debt collector might promise that if you pay half the balance they’ll write off the rest or something along those lines. If you go into an agreement like that just with a phone conversation and there’s no written record, there’s nothing that stops them from coming back and saying, “We never agreed to that.” Then you’re in a worse position than you were to begin with.
7. Don’t Talk About Anything With Debt Collectors Except How Much You Can Pay and When
Debt collectors call people to get them to pay their debts, but they also call to fish for information. There are a lot of tactics they use to get more information than you really should be offering. This includes details about your bank account, your employment, who you’re working for, how much you get paid, where your place of work is located, where you live and so on. That information can be used to go to court, get a judgement against you and garnish your wages and attach a lien on your bank account or take a percentage of your paycheck, depending on what the rules are in your state. The way the conversation goes, you may not even realize you’re giving up damaging information.
According to McClary, “You really need to be on your toes and not give any more information than necessary. The debt collector isn’t just having a friendly chat. They’re on a fact finding mission. They want to get your money and they want to get information. That’s why you should follow the Joe Friday rule and just stick to the facts. How much you’re able to pay, when you’re able to pay it and so on. Don’t go into discussions about your job, your house, your mortgage, where you live, what kind of car you drive or any other personal information. The more info you give, the more information they’ll have to use against you.”
Often times people will get chatty with the debt collector and start revealing details about their life. But if you’re going to be taking a vacation, making a purchase or anything like that, it’s probably not a good idea to start talking about that in the same conversation where you’re telling them you don’t have any money to pay them. It’s going to make you seem like your priorities are out of whack and it might start leading them to think about looking at other methods of collecting the debt, like garnishing your wages. Keep all the details out of it.
“The call is all business,” says McClary. “You might like the sound of their voice. You may be lonely and need someone to talk to. But this is not a casual conversation. The less you feel like it is, the easier it’ll be for you to keep a lid on some of the things you don’t need to be offering up. But the more relaxed you get in that conversation, you might be in danger of letting some information slip that you’ll regret later.”
8. Understand the Real Consequences for Missing Deadlines
Be aware of misleading deadlines debt collectors may tell you to get you to pay more than you may be able to pay, sooner than you necessarily have to. Obviously if an account is in collection, the balance is due right away, there’s no question about that. In some cases it’s the full balance due right then and there. But according to McClary, debt collectors are famous for really piling it on at the end of the month.
“The reason the end of the month is a big time for debt collectors is that a lot of them are paid commission. A lot of them have monthly goals. If they’re not reaching their monthly goal, that means you get more phone calls. They’re trying to press you for some kind of a commitment to get you to pay before the end of the month and they may say things to make the situation seem more urgent than it actually is. You have to be careful and sort of fish around and find out what exactly are the consequences if you don’t pay on the 31st and instead you pay on the first. What that may mean is that they don’t get first place in the debt collector of the month contest. However, it may not necessarily prevent you from being able to make that same payment on the first. You really have to find out what the stakes really are,” McClary says.
9. Watch for Dirty Caller ID Tricks
Some debt collection agencies have very creative caller ID masking that goes on to make their phone number show up as something completely false. If the caller ID information is misleading, snap a picture of it and use that to report them. Because again, that falls under the category of misrepresenting the purpose of the call.
Debt collectors have to identify themselves and they have to confirm that they’re speaking to the account holder. They have to ask who you are, and once they’ve confirmed that, the very next words out of their mouth should be, “This call is for the purpose of legally collecting a debt that you owe.” Then they have to go into some other notices and disclosures about the nature of the call. If they don’t do those two things then there’s a problem.
10. Don’t Shut off Communication Entirely
“I know people are going to think, no, I want them to stop calling me and stop writing,” says McClary. “But you don’t want to be completely out of the loop when it comes to knowing what their next move might be. If you shut off all lines of communication then you’re just guessing about when they might take the next steps and what those next steps might be. A lawsuit might come out of nowhere at a time you never expected. You don’t want to put yourself at that kind of disadvantage. I know it’s frustrating for people being on the receiving end of these calls, but you’ve got to leave some avenue for the debt collector to reach you. You actually want to continue constructive conversation with a debt collector so you don’t have to worry about them taking some other enforcement action. You don’t want to shut off communication completely, so you do want to give them one method of contacting you, whether that’s by mail, email or phone.”
11. Specify How a Debt Collector Can Contact You
You have a legal right to specify your preferred method of communication with the debt collector and they have a legal requirement to adhere to that request. First, you’ll want to put that in writing. A debt collector has to comply with your requests. If you ask them to stop calling you in writing, they have to stop calling you. Below is a sample letter from the CFPB that you can use to get a debt collector to use your preferred method of communication. Click the letter to download the editable MS Word file.
“They don’t need 300 ways to reach you,” says McClary, “so don’t give them information about how to contact you on social media, how to contact you with text messages and so on. Just keep it to the basics. But if you’re going to limit the debt collector’s ability to contact you, then you need to put that request in writing because that holds their feet to the fire.”
If you want to limit a debt collector’s communication without shutting it off, the best thing to do is just send them an email or a registered letter or some way that you have verification that they received it and tell them to contact you only in writing, only by mail, only by email or only by phone one day a week. That at least stops the harassment but you’re still getting messages in some form that allow you to see where things are, what they’re asking you to do and what might be their next step. That way, you’re still in the loop.
12. Be Proactive
The debt collector is in the driver’s seat when they’re the only ones making the phone calls. You as the debtor have just as much of a right to contact them. In fact, there’s no rule telling you how many times you can call them during the day. This is not an encouragement to harass the debt collector. Rather, if you call them regularly, say twice a week, that sends a strong signal to the debt collector that you’re interested in working with them. You’re being proactive. You’re not waiting for them to call you. They’re going to approach the conversation differently. They’ll think of you as someone who’s reasonable, who wants to work the situation out but may not necessarily be in a position to do it right now. They’ll see that you’re making it a little bit easier to find middle ground. In other words, you’re showing that you’re willing to work with them.
While that tactic won’t work with every debt collector, it can send a strong message to those who are playing by the rules. You’ll find that if you start taking the driver’s seat with the communications, it makes a huge difference and it can even cut back the number of times they’re calling you.
“When you make those calls,” McClary says, “make sure you have something meaningful to tell them. Don’t just call and say, hey, how are you doing, what’s the weather there in Detroit? Let them know, here’s what’s happened since our last call. I’ve checked on these things, I’ve seen if I could get some money, I can or I can’t. Just basically give them a little bit of an update. That kind of thing can go a long way.”
Don’t be afraid to let the debt collector know that you know the rules and that you’re keeping an eye on them. They may appreciate it or they may not be too happy about it, but either way, you’re letting them know that you know the lay of the land. That goes a long way toward protecting you from harassment. It’s a way of being proactive and putting a stop to harassment before it starts.
14. Use a Nonprofit Credit Counselor From the NFCC
According to McClary, “If you ever get to the point where you want to pay your debt but you want to talk to someone who isn’t a debt collector, it’s always a good idea to reach out to a nonprofit credit counseling agency. They can help in these situations. They’ll certainly help you put together a plan to repay the debt within your ability to do so. Looking for a nonprofit credit counseling agency on the NFCC website at NFCC.org is a great way to find a counselor near you or someone you can talk to, to help you get your budget to a point where you can repay those debts and get the debt collectors out of the way.”
To contact the NFCC, click here to visit their website or call 800-388-2227.
Bruce McClary, National Foundation for Credit Counseling
Recording Phone Calls and Conversations – Digital Media Law Project
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act – Consumer Finance Protection Bureau