Key takeaways

  • The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, is a federal law that establishes the rules by which debt collectors must abide when trying to collect an unpaid debt from a consumer.
  • Under the FDCPA, debt collectors can't contact you repeatedly in a form that constitutes harassment, threatens to harm you or contact you publicly in social media, among other things.
  • Knowing the rules established in the FDCPA is essential to protecting yourself against unethical debt collection behavior.

When a third-party debt collection company attempts to collect a debt from you, they must refrain from engaging in unethical behavior. If they fail to do so, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) sets forth penalties against them for violating your rights.

The FDCPA is a federal law designed to protect you from debt collectors who harass, mislead and abuse consumers. Knowing how this law works is essential when learning how to deal with a debt collector.

What is the FDCPA designed to do?

Enacted in 1978, The FDCPA defines who a debt collector is, how often and when a debt collector can contact you and what constitutes harassment, as well as abuse. It also instructs debt collectors on what to include when notifying you about your debt. For example, when contacting you regarding your debt, the collector must inform you of the 30-day window you have to dispute it.

Under this law, original creditors — lenders who originally loaned you money — are exempt. However, some states have similar laws that apply to original creditors as well.

When the law was first written, cellphones, email and social media were pretty much nonexistent. Because of this, lately there have been some questions raised as to how often and when a debt collector can use these forms of communication to collect a debt. To minimize the confusion, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently issued revisions to the act that clarify that these new technologies may be used for debt collection, albeit with limitations.

How debt collection works

When you fail to repay your debt as promised, your lender will probably contact you to see what’s wrong. If you ignore its calls or written notices, it may stop trying to collect the debt and send it to a debt collector. This collector can be a company the lender works with or a debt collection agency that has purchased the debt from the original creditor.

Once that happens, the debt collection process begins. The company or agency will send you a letter or call you to inform you about the outstanding debt. If it adheres to the FDCPA, it’ll include the following information:

  • How you can dispute the debt.
  • The amount of your debt.
  • The name of the original creditor.

Additionally, the debt collector may report the unpaid account to one of three credit bureaus, which will negatively impact your credit score.

Types of protections under the FDCPA

The FDCPA has several guidelines about what a debt collector can and cannot do to ensure that they don’t constantly call you, harass and abuse you or lie to you about the amount you owe.


Under the FDCPA, a debt collection agency is prohibited from contacting you during certain times of the day, unless you give them permission. For example, a debt collector is allowed to contact you only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Also, a debt collector is prohibited from contacting you in the following scenarios:

  • They know you’re represented by an attorney.
  • You’ve informed them that your place of employment doesn’t allow personal calls.
  • You’ve sent them a letter in writing asking them to refrain from contacting you.

Although the collector is allowed to communicate with your friends, neighbors and family when attempting to locate you, they aren’t allowed to reveal that you have debt unless they speak to your spouse.

When a debt collector communicates with you via email or text message regarding your debt, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau requires them to provide a “reasonable and simple method” for you to opt out of receiving future communication. Likewise, although debt collectors can contact you in social media, they must do it privately and always identify themselves when they first message you.

Protection against harassment and abuse

The FDCPA protects you from being harassed and abused by the debt collector. For example, if a collector were to call your phone repeatedly to annoy you, they would be in violation of the law.

Additionally, a collector cannot threaten to harm you physically, publish a public listing with your name on it or use profanity.


When communicating with you, a debt collector has to be honest. They can’t pretend to be an attorney, lie about the amount you owe or exaggerate the consequences of you not paying your debt. In addition, they can’t lie to you about the legal status of your debt.

The reason the last point is important is that some debt is time-barred — which means that you don’t have to pay it back after a certain amount of time. If the debt collector lies to you about its legal status and you pay it without confirming the debt’s age, you may end up resetting the clock on the debt.

Validation of your debt

The FDCPA law also offers you a chance to validate your debt. After a collector reaches out to you, they must send a written notice that includes the following:

  • Name of original creditor.
  • Amount you owe.
  • Statement saying you have 30 days to dispute the debt.
  • Information on how to dispute the debt collection.

If after checking the information you find that the debt doesn’t belong to you, it’s imperative that you dispute it so you can have it removed from your credit report.

Payments being misapplied due to multiple debts

Finally, the law protects you if you have multiple debts with one collection agency and one of those debts have been disputed. For example, let’s say you have a personal loan and credit card debt that has been sent to the same debt collection agency. If you’ve disputed the credit card debt, the debt collector cannot apply any payments you make to that debt. They’ll have to follow your instructions to apply the payment to your personal loan debt instead.

Types of collections the FDCPA covers

The FDCPA covers debt used primarily for personal and family reasons, which includes the following:

  • Student loans.
  • Mortgages.
  • Medical debt.
  • Personal debt.
  • Credit card debt.
  • Payday loans.
  • Car loans.

Debt you’ve used for corporate, agricultural or business purposes isn’t covered under this law.

Aggressive debt collection tactics

In order to get you to repay your debt, some debt collectors may resort to using aggressive debt collection tactics. For example, a debt collector who doesn’t obey the law might threaten to repossess your car or other personal property for failure to pay an unsecured debt. However, unless the creditor has been awarded a judgement against you, they can’t legally repossess your property.

Other examples of aggressive behavior include:

  • Calling your phone repeatedly.
  • Threatening to arrest you.
  • Shouting obscenities at you.

What to do if your rights have been violated

If a debt collector is acting in violation of the FDCPA, you can take the following actions:

If you need additional help, try reaching out to an attorney in your area who specializes in protecting consumer’s rights. They may be able to help you with filing a lawsuit. The debt collector will have to pay the cost of your attorney fees if you win.

What to do if debt is past statute of limitations?

The statute of limitations is the window of time a debt collector has to collect an unpaid debt. This time frame varies by state, as well as by the type of contract you had (written or oral, promissory note or open-ended account). In some cases, debt collectors may sue you for debts as old as 20 years.

But regardless of the statute of limitations in your state, if a debt has expired, you’re not legally required to pay it back. That said, even if your state limits collections after a three- or six-year window, this unpaid debt could stay on your report for up to seven years, impacting your score and future access to credit.