Don't panic if you get a call from a debt collector

5 Steps to Take if a Debt Collector Calls

by Sergei Lemberg

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Many people panic the first time they pick up the phone and hear a debt collector on the line. That's understandable, as the disembodied voice of a debt collector can be intimidating, particularly if he puts you on the spot or makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet it's important to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take the time to understand your rights as a consumer. Here are five steps to take if you're being pursued by a debt collector.

1. Write everything down.

Whether in a notebook or on your computer, keep a log of the dates and times debt collectors communicate with you. Jot down the name of the caller, the company he is from, and what was said during the call. According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), debt collectors can't call early in the morning or late at night. In addition, debt collectors must identify themselves as such, and immediately tell you that they're attempting to collect a debt.

The FDCPA also outlines illegal debt collector tactics. For example, a debt collector can't call so many times that it constitutes harassment, can't threaten you with arrest or imprisonment, and can't threaten to take you to court (unless the agency is planning to do so). He can't call you at work if you've informed him that you can't take calls at work. So, it's important to keep a record of dates, times, and the content of conversations.

2. Don't provide personal information.

If a debt collector is on the line, he has your phone number. He doesn't need additional information, so don't provide any. Unethical debt collectors often try to intimidate consumers into parting with their social security numbers, their bank account and bank routing numbers, their places of employment, their spouse's names, and so forth.

3. Confirm that the debt is your responsibility.

Debt collectors will often go after people who aren't responsible for the debt in question. Sometimes this is an honest mistake, and other times there's something more sinister going on. The FDCPA says that, within five days of first contacting you, a debt collection agency must send you a letter in the mail outlining the amount that you supposedly owe, the original creditor, and your right to dispute the debt within 30 days.

When you receive the letter, open it immediately. It may be tempting to let it slide, but if you don't dispute the debt within 30 days of receiving the letter, the debt collection agency is allowed to assume that the debt is your responsibility and can pursue collection efforts. Review the information contained in the letter. It might be accurate, it could be a debt that you'd already paid off, or it could be a debt that is past the statute of limitations and is uncollectible through the courts. Conceivably, it could be someone else's debt, perhaps someone with a similar name or someone who once lived where you now live. Keep in mind that, even if the debt belongs to someone else, you're still protected from debt collector harassment under the FDCPA.

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4. Think through your options.

If the debt is not yours to pay, send a dispute letter via certified mail, return receipt requested. The debt collection agency is not allowed to contact you again until they have validated the debt. In addition, keep a tab on your credit reports, as debt collection agencies have been known to report erroneous information to credit bureaus. If that's the case, dispute the item in your credit report and find out if you have a cause of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

If the debt is yours, determine the statute of limitations in your state. If the debt is past the statute of limitations, the debt collector cannot take you to court. You must decide whether or not to pay.

If the debt is within the statute of limitations, and you have the means to pay it, you can likely negotiate a lower dollar amount than that which the debt collector says you owe. Strong negotiation skills will definitely save you money. If you can't pay it off all at once, you can likely negotiate a payment plan. However, it's critical that you get the payment plan in writing. Debt collection has a high turnover, and the person you speak to today may not be the collector you deal with next month. Finally, after agreeing to a payment plan, do not give the debt collection agency your bank account number or your credit card number. Insist upon mailing money orders to the payment address. There are many horror stories of debt collection agencies wiping out all of the money in consumers' bank accounts, or continuing to withdraw payments after the debt has been paid in full.

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5. Stand up for your rights.

If a debt collector has violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to sue them in court. Both laws have what are called fee-shifting provisions, which means that in a successful lawsuit, your court costs and attorney fees are paid by the debt collection agency. A consumer attorney typically won't charge you for his or her services, because he or she knows that they'll get paid when they win the case. Often, even if the case doesn't go to trial, it settles out of court, and you could receive monetary damages or have your debt reduced or wiped out. That's why it's important to consult with a fair debt attorney if you've been the victim of debt collector abuse.

Reviewed April 2017

Sergei Lemberg ( is the principal at Lemberg & Associates, which represents consumers in matters relating to fair debt collection (, fair credit reporting, and lemon law (

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