5 Things Debt Collectors Can’t Do — and 5 They Can

Debt collectors have restrictions on how they can pursue you for payment, but they are allowed to sue you.

Sean Pyles
By Sean Pyles 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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If you feel powerless when dealing with debt collectors, know that their tactics are limited by the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.

Here are five things third-party debt collectors — those who collect a debt on behalf of another creditor — can't do, and five they can.

5 things debt collectors can’t do

1. Come to your workplace

Under the FDCPA, it’s illegal for a debt collector to come to your workplace to collect payment. The act prohibits publicizing your debts, and showing up at your job to collect your debt counts. This means that debt collectors cannot harass you in-person at your work.

However, a debt collector, like a credit card company, may call you at work, though they can’t reveal to your co-workers that they are debt collectors. If you ask the debt collector not to contact you at work, by law they must stop.

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2. Harass you

Harassment from a debt collector can come in many forms:

  • Repeated calls.

  • Threats of violence.

  • Publishing information about you.

  • Abusive or obscene language.

All of these are illegal under the debt collection practices act.

3. Arrest you for debt

You can’t be arrested for a debt you owe to a debt collector.

However, if a debt collector sues you over debt and you fail to show up in court, you may lose by default and be ordered to pay. Then if you defy that court order, the collector may pursue an arrest warrant.

4. Pursue you for debt you don’t owe

The debt collection industry is rife with inaccuracies. Incomplete or inaccurate documentation can lead a debt collector to pursue the wrong person for payment, or pursue the right person for a debt he or she already paid. This issue isn’t uncommon, but it’s illegal.

If you doubt a debt you’re being asked to pay, start with a review of your credit reports. You can get them for free by using AnnualCreditReport.com.

Keep in mind that after someone dies, collectors can contact their family or executor to discuss debt repayment, but they cannot misrepresent whether someone is obligated to pay those debts.

5. Call you whenever they want

Debt collectors can’t call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. You can also request that a debt collector stop calling or writing in pursuit of payment on a debt. Your obligation to pay the debt remains, however.

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5 things debt collectors can do

1. Seek payment on an expired debt

All unsecured debts, like credit cards and medical bills, have a statute of limitations. After this date, the debt is “expired” and you can’t be sued for payment. But you still owe it, and debt collectors can still seek payment on these old financial obligations.

2. Pressure you

While debt collectors can’t threaten you or mislead you, they can apply pressure to collect payment. This pressure can include daily calls, frequent letters, or talk about pursuing a lawsuit for payment on the debt — as long as they stay within the bounds of the law.

3. Sue you for payment on a debt

Debt collectors can sue you for payment on a debt as a last-ditch effort. These lawsuits often result in wage garnishment, bank levies or both, because most debtors don’t show up to court and lose by default.

4. Sell your debt

A collector may resell debt it hasn't been able to collect on, or sell the remainder if only partial payment was made. So if one debt collector stops contacting you about a debt, don’t be surprised if another starts. If you do pay off a debt in full, make sure you get the agreement in writing so you can prove it.

5. Negotiate what you owe

Because debt collectors buy debts for pennies on the dollar, they have fairly large profit margins if they collect the original amount owed. This gives them more flexibility in negotiating payment from a consumer. You may be able to negotiate a settlement for 25% or 30% of what you originally owed. Again, get the agreement in writing, so you have proof the debt was considered paid in full for the agreed-upon settlement amount.