Can you go to jail for debt?

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A debt collector can’t send you to jail for civil debts, like unpaid credit card bills, student loans, hospital loans or utility bills. In some states, the only debt you can be jailed for is overdue taxes or child support.

According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), no debt collector can legally threaten to send a debtor to jail. Debtors’ prisons are illegal in the United States and have been since 1833. However, there is a loophole in the law that some authorities use to arrest people for debt-related sentences.

If you’re sued by a debt collector and fail to appear for court dates or pay designated installments, for example, you could very well end up in jail for contempt of court.

What you need to know about debt collection

Unless you’re on the line for child support or unpaid taxes, you shouldn’t have to worry about jail time. The FDCPA bans debt collectors from threatening you with jail time or a lawsuit if that’s not the case. Additionally, a collection agency can’t lie in any way or misrepresent how much money you owe. If a collector is harassing you or you don’t want to hear from them again, it is within your rights to send them a letter by mail requesting they stop contacting you.

Although you can’t go to jail for debt, there is a technicality that might lead to time behind bars — a lawsuit.

A debt collector may decide to sue you for the debt you owe. Even if you have requested that the collection agency stop contacting you, they must let you know of an impending trial. Generally, you will be served in person by a lawyer or local authority with the demand that you appear in court. If they can’t find you in person, you might receive a notice in the mail with a form you must sign acknowledging you received it. Do not ignore these documents.

Rather than avoiding the summons, talk to a licensed attorney. A professional can give you the best plan of action. Even if you’re low on cash, many attorneys offer a free initial consultation and will not bill you until they’ve settled your case. A failure to follow the court’s requests can give authorities free rein to seek an arrest.

How to protect yourself from rogue debt collectors

Remember this: You cannot be jailed for failing to pay your student loans or other civil debts. A debt collector has to go through the court system — after which several events take place that makes you in contempt of court — before any threat of jail time is valid.

However, this doesn’t always stop a debt collector from trying to intimidate you. When a debt collector has overstepped their legal boundaries, you may feel hopeless. But there are a few steps you can take to regain control.

Write a letter asking the debt collector to stop contacting you

If you decide you don’t want the debt collector to continue contacting you, write them a letter requesting that they stop. Legally, they must stop contacting you directly. It’s a good idea to add a return receipt at the post office when you mail the letter so you can prove that they received the letter.

Ask the creditor to confirm your debt

If you aren’t sure the debt is even yours, you can request that the collection agency validate your debt by showing you a copy of the bill or receipt. In the meantime, the agency cannot continue pursuing you.

File a complaint

A debt collector cannot harass you, lie to you or engage in unfair practices. If the collection agency you are working with has done any of the above, you can file a complaint through several routes:

Understanding your rights is the first step to protecting yourself from unfair practices used by many debt collectors. These steps can help you feel more in control.

Bottom line

Many steps have to take place before a jail sentence would ever be valid and failing to pay your debt is not the last one. If a debt collector contacts you for bills you don’t believe you owe, talk with an attorney before making any moves. There are protections in place that can stop a lawsuit from ever happening.

On the other hand, if the debt is yours and you don’t have the means to pay, there are steps you can take, such as negotiating with the lender or taking out a debt consolidation loan.