Common Illegal & Unfair Debt Collection Practices

The federal Fair Debt Collections Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from engaging in many kinds of abusive or deceptive activities. It pays to learn what collectors cannot do, so that you can protect yourself.

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Collection agencies that collect credit card debts sometimes engage in harrassing and illegal behavior, making debtors' lives miserable. Fortunately, the federal Fair Debt Collections Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from engaging in many kinds of abusive or deceptive activities. It pays to learn what collectors cannot do, so that you can protect yourself.

The FDCPA only applies to debt collectors, not creditors trying to collect their own debts. However, it does apply to lawyers who regularly collect debts and creditors that collect debts under a different name. Some states have laws that apply to creditors collecting their own debts.

Illegal Credit Card Collection Practices

Here are some common collection practices used by collection agencies that are illegal under the FDCPA. 

  • Sending materials designed to look like a legal summons or another legal document. A collection agency can't send papers that appear to be from a law firm or a court. 
  • Making harassing telephone calls. Collection agencies may not contact you at unusual or inconvenient times or places. The collector must assume that calls before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. are inconvenient. But calls at other times may be inconvenient too, depending on your situation. You can tell the collector not to contact you at other inconvenient times. 
  • Calling you at work if the collector knows your employer prohibits you from receiving such calls.
  • Using obscene, profane, or abusive language.
  • Calling you or anyone else without the collector identifying him or herself.
  • Claiming to be a law enforcement agent.
  • Falsely representing the amount you owe or the legal status of the debt.
  • Threatening to take action that it does not intend to take or cannot legally take (for example, saying it will sue you when it has no plans to do so). 

What to Do if a Collector Violates the Law

If a collector violates the law, you can complain to the original creditor, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov), contact your state consumer protection office, or even sue the collector in Small Claims Court to recover penalties and damages. The FDCPA provides for penalties of up to $1,000 per violation, even if you didn't suffer damages. To learn more about bringing an action in Small Claims Court, check out Nolo's free articles, FAQs, and state law charts in its Small Claims Court & Lawsuits area.

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