Bill Collections and Harassment
When you are unable to pay your debts, it can become overwhelming. After a certain period of time of not receiving a payment on your debt, a creditor can decide to refer your account to a collection agency, sometimes known as a “third party.” A collection agency takes over the attempt to collect what is owed. If a debt goes into collections, you should be aware of your rights. This enables you to protect yourself against unlawful debt collection practices or procedures.
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
If you owe money to someone, you are the “debtor”.
An “original creditor” is a company or individual that loaned you money. This creditor may hire a third-party debt collector to help collect a past due debt. The name of the third party who contacts you may be different than the original creditor.
Third-party debt collection companies are often paid only when they can collect a debt. The amount that they make is often connected to the amount that they are able to get from you, as the debtor.
The Federal Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is law that prohibits third-party debt collectors from using unfair means to collect any debt. Examples of debt collectors are collection agencies, debt buyers, and attorneys regularly collecting debts.
Consumers in Florida are also protected under the Florida Consumer Collection Protection Act (FCCPA), a state law that prohibits both original creditors and third-party debt collectors from using deceptive and abusive practices to collect debt.
Whether or not you owe a company money, the debt collection laws in Florida provide you (as the consumer or debtor) legal protection from certain forms of debt collection methods, including:
- Calling you after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m.
- Calling you at work
- Using profanity or foul language
- Revealing information about a debt to another person such as a friend, neighbor, roommate, boyfriend/girlfriend, co-worker or relative
- Pretending to be an attorney or affiliated with a law office
- Threatening wage garnishment, repossession or a lawsuit when there is no intent or legal right to take such action because the debt is so old
- Refusing to honor repeated requests for collection phone calls to stop
- Trying to collect a debt which has been previously waived, settled, or discharged in bankruptcy
- Trying to collect a debt which is not your debt, or trying to collect more than you owe
- Use of physical or verbal threats or acts to collect debt
- Contacting you directly if you have an attorney
- Other types of conduct that may be considered abuse or harassment.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
Make sure the debt is a consumer debt. These laws apply only to consumer debt, not to business or commercial debts.
Consumer debt is a debt incurred by an individual primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. Anything else is non-consumer debt. A good rule of thumb is to look at what you used the money for rather than where you got it or the type of transaction.
- If you used the money to pay a personal, family or household expense, or to purchase personal, family or household goods, it’s probably a consumer debt.
- If you used it to pay for something else, it is likely not consumer debt and therefore, a business debt.
Business debt is anything that doesn’t qualify as consumer debt — often referred to as non-consumer debt.
If you are unsure which type of debt you have, use the date the debt was incurred to determine its status. If you incurred the debt for a consumer purchase (such as a personal computer) and later used that purchase you made in your business, the debt will be a consumer debt.
If a creditor or debt collector harms you in violation of the FCCPA, you have a private “cause of action.” This means that you can file a lawsuit in Florida against the collector or creditor. If you win, the court may award to you:
- Actual damages (the losses you endured),
- Damages based on current laws not to exceed $1,000,
- Other possible damages (at the judge’s discretion), and/or
attorneys’ fees and court costs.
You also may file a lawsuit against the debt collector for violating similar federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If you win such a lawsuit, you may be awarded your actual damages, statutory damages, and possibly attorneys’ fees and costs. If your claim is strong, many times lawyers will represent you without an upfront fee because they feel confident of winning your case and earning the attorneys’ fees.
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) is the best course of action to file a complaint about debt collection practices. If you believe a debt collector is harassing you, you can submit a complaint with CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).
Complaints about collection agencies may be filed with Office of Financial Regulation or with by mailed letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Correspondence Branch, Washington, D.C. 20580.
To remind people of their rights – and debt collectors of their obligations – the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) features a new video available online in the section called “Dealing with Debt.” The video is also available in Spanish at www.ftc.gov/asuntosdedinero.
The FTC’s Debt Collection FAQs page may also be helpful. These and other publications about debt collection and managing debt are also available in Spanish at www.ftc.gov/asuntosdedinero.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?
A debt isn’t gone or removed from your credit report just because you ask the collector to stop contacting you. The collector can still seek payment through a lawsuit, which can lead to wage garnishment – an automatic deduction from your paycheck. However, if you file a law suit against the creditor, that can provide leverage (or support) your argument.
For more information on wage garnishment, see our topic page about it.
Make sure you do not pay more than you owe!
Know exactly how much you owe and confirm the debt belongs to you before you make a payment. Debt collectors are legally required to send you a debt validation letter, which outlines what the debt is, how much you owe and other information.
If you’re still uncertain about the debt you’re asked to pay, you can send the debt collector a debt verification letter requesting more information. This option is best if you plan to pay the debt in collections.