Contacted by a debt collector? 6 things to know about your rights

Couple reviews their debt collection rights before paying a debt collectorImage: Couple reviews their debt collection rights before paying a debt collector

In a Nutshell

Debt collectors aren’t allowed to harass you about an unpaid debt, but they may be able to sue you within a period prescribed by a statute of limitations. Before speaking to a debt collector, it’s important to better understand your rights.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

Having a debt go to collections can be scary. You might be wondering how far debt collectors can go to get paid, and what your rights are.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, gives consumers protections at the federal level, and most states also have laws about debt collection practices.

Knowing your rights can be empowering. It can give you the info you need — and a boost of confidence — to deal with any legitimate debt you have in collections.

We’ll review some key things you should know about your debt collection rights, including when and how a debt collector may contact you as well as some advice for how to deal with debt collectors and any legitimate debt.

  1. Right to a written notice explaining your debt
  2. Right to know the debt collector or debt collection agency
  3. Right not to be harassed
  4. Right to privacy of your personal information
  5. Right to dispute incorrect debt
  6. Steps to take to pay off debt in collections

1. Right to a written notice explaining your debt

The first thing you should do when a debt collector contacts you — before even considering a payment — is to make sure that the debt collector and the debt are legitimate.

Keep in mind that a phone call from a debt collector isn’t enough. The FDCPA states that debt collectors must provide the following information in writing within five days of first contacting you:

  • The amount of the debt
  • The name of the creditor you owe
  • That you can dispute the debt
  • A statement that — unless you dispute the validity of the debt or any of the amount within 30 days after receiving notice — the debt collector will assume the debt to be valid
  • A statement that if you dispute the debt in writing within 30 days, the debt collector must provide verification of the debt
  • A statement that the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt, if you notify the debt collector in writing within the 30-day period that the debt (or any portion of it) is disputed.
  • The name and address of the original creditor (if different than the current creditor) as long as you request the information in writing within 30 days

There are two exceptions to this five-day deadline — if the information is contained in the initial written communication or you’ve paid the debt already.

2. Right to know the debt collector or debt collection agency

Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to identify themselves when they attempt to collect a debt as well as note that any information you give them will be used in an attempt to collect the debt. They also must give you the name of their company or agency. Legitimate collectors should be able to give you a business address and contact information, too.

If a debt collector has given you their name and identifying info but you’re still suspicious, you may be able to find more information about the collector via your state’s attorney general’s or consumer affairs office.

3. Right not to be harassed

In addition to identifying themselves and letting you know that they’re attempting to collect a debt, debt collectors have certain rules they have to stick to.

The FDCPA limits what debt collectors can do when attempting to collect debt.

Debt collectors typically are not allowed to …

  • Call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. or call you at work if you’ve communicated you can’t be called there.
  • Yell, swear or use other harassing language.
  • Threaten you with anything outside of what they can legally enforce.
  • “Engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt,” including calling a lot or dialing you and then hanging up.

4. Right to privacy of your personal information

Debt collectors are limited in what they can say or ask about you to other people. (They also can’t contact those people more than once.) That information is typically limited to …

  • Where you live
  • Your phone number
  • Where you work

Debt collectors can usually only speak to certain people about any debts you owe.

  • Your spouse
  • Your parent (if you’re a minor)
  • Your guardian, executor or administrator
  • Your attorney (if that attorney is representing you for that particular debt collection)

5. Right to dispute incorrect debt

If you believe the debt being collected is inaccurate, you have 30 days from the date you’re first contacted by a debt collector to dispute the debt in writing.

You should dispute anything you think may be inaccurate right away — after 30 days, the debt collector can legally attempt to collect the debt. 

But if you dispute the debt, the debt collector is legally obligated to verify the debt before proceeding with any collections action. While they’re verifying the debt, the debt collector can’t contact you to attempt to collect it.

6. Steps to take to pay off debt in collections

Even though you have protections under the FDCPA, debt collectors are still allowed to ask you to repay your legitimate debts. As you navigate this process, there are some important things to consider.

Check your credit reports for collection accounts

It’s important to know how old any legitimate debts you owe are. That’s because negative information like debt owed typically stays on your credit reports for seven years.

Items like a past due account or late payment will have a negative impact on your credit history. In fact, payment history is the biggest factor in calculating your FICO® and VantageScore scores, so delinquent accounts with a past due balance can really harm your scores.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act lets all Americans check each of their three credit reports at least once a year for free. If you get a copy of your free credit report from each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — you can check to see if you have any collection accounts.

Keep in mind that even if you pay off any debt showing on your credit reports, it may stay on those reports as a paid collection for up to seven years.

Know the statute of limitations for your debt

Looking at the age of your debt can help you determine if you still have legal liability. Even if collectors threaten you, when the statute of limitations passes they can no longer sue you to collect, unless the debt is revived.

Where you live and what type of debt you have likely determine the statute of limitations the debt collection agency has to abide by. Most statutes of limitations range from three years to six years, although in some jurisdictions they may extend for longer, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If you want to know more about your state’s debt collection laws, reach out to your state attorney general’s office.

Making a payment could restart the clock on your debt

In some states, making a partial payment on your debt could restart the statute of limitations. That’s why, before committing to a payment plan, you should make sure you’re comfortable with the possibility of eventually having to pay off all your debt. It’s also a good idea to get that repayment plan in writing and review it for accuracy.

If your debt is nearing your state’s statute of limitations, the CFPB says that debt collectors may be more willing to negotiate a settlement with you.

Respond to lawsuit notices

It’s important that you don’t ignore an attempt to collect a debt. If debt collectors have trouble reaching you and settling the debt, they may legally be able to sue you.

Depending on the laws of your state, if you ignore a summons — even if you believe the debt is too old — the debt collector may get a judgment to go after your assets or garnish your wages.

If you’re worried you won’t be able to afford an attorney to fight a suit from a debt collector, the CFPB has resources on state legal aid offices.

Send a ‘drop dead’ letter

Tired of constant phone calls from a debt collector? You have the right to ask them to stop contacting you. To do so, you can send what’s sometimes referred to as a “drop dead letter” — a written notice to the debt collector informing them you want no further contact.

By law, debt collectors are required to follow this request. But keep in mind that this letter won’t stop a debt collector from suing you to collect a debt.

Research debt settlement and debt counseling services

Debt settlement and debt counseling services may be helpful, but be careful not to pay for expensive services you don’t need.

You may want to look into a well-established credit counseling service that can provide you with financial advice. Two options include the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America.

There are also for-profit debt repayment services. The CFPB says to be wary of any service that asks for an upfront payment or asks you to stop making payments to creditors.

Learn more about debt settlement and debt relief options that may be available to you.

Beware of scam artists

Unfortunately, there are bad actors out there who may try to take advantage of people with debt. It’s important to be skeptical when someone contacts you and wants money.

Here are some signs that the debt collector or debt counseling service contacting you isn’t what it claims to be — and may actually be running a scam.

  • They demand immediate payment.
  • They use high-pressure tactics (such as threats of arrest, alerting authorities, physical harm or shaming).
  • They won’t answer questions or give you the company name, address and phone number.
  • They want personal financial information (such as bank account or Social Security numbers).
  • They require less-traceable payment methods (such as gift cards, wire transfers or bitcoin).

Fast Facts

Do you avoid dealing with finances? Here's why — and ways to change.

Generally, we procrastinate or put off doing things that make us stressed or anxious, according to the American Psychological Association. Money is a top personal stressor for most adults, the APA’s 2019 Stress in America survey found. In addition, the APA says many people have negative feelings about money that stem from childhood experience, leading to “money avoidance” behaviors as adults. To change, let go of shame and guilt, says the APA — and acknowledge your anxieties. Then work on a spending plan (a budgeting guide might make it less scary). And try tools like auto-payments and financial apps to help keep you on track, the APA suggests

Next steps

When a debt collector contacts you, it can feel overwhelming. But taking a step back and thinking through ways to confirm and settle the debt can help reduce the stress of the debt collection process. If this is a situation you’re facing, consider these steps.

  1. Make sure the debt is accurate. If it isn’t, you can file a dispute letter using one of the CFPB’s templates.
  2. Once you’re sure you actually owe the debt, decide how much of it you can pay. If you can’t pay your debt in full, calculate how much you can comfortably pay each month and try to negotiate a settlement and debt payment plan with the debt collector. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the debt and hope it’ll just go away.
  3. Evaluate your budget so that you can stay out of debt in the future. Consider making a budget with something like the 50/30/20 rule, where 50% of your budget goes toward monthly bills and necessities, 30% goes toward things you want, and 20% goes toward savings and paying down existing debts.

About the author: Paris Ward is a content strategist at Credit Karma, providing readers with the latest news that will aid their financial progress. She has more than a decade of experience as a writer and editor and holds a bachelor’s… Read more.