When you’re behind on your payments, you probably expect to get a few letters and phone calls from lenders and collection agencies. Those collection efforts are fairly standard. While annoying—especially if you’ve already explained that you can’t pay or the debt isn’t yours—it’s easy enough to ignore those attempts.
You might find it more troubling when a debt collector comes to your house asking for payment—it can feel like harassment, and it’s downright scary for some borrowers. So, how likely is it, and what can you do if a bill collector is knocking at the door? Get educated on your rights so that you know how to handle the situation.
The likelihood of a debt collector knocking on your door is quite small. If somebody is threatening to come to your house, it could be a sign of a scam or illegal intimidation.
Collectors Can Come to Your House
Most creditors will mail letters and make phone calls in attempts to collect. Sending an actual person is much more expensive, which probably doesn’t justify that cost.
Just like anybody else, they’re allowed to knock on your door and ask questions, though. Federal law and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), in particular, do not prohibit bill collectors from visiting in-person. However, they need to follow certain rules, some of which are specific to debt collection and others that are more general in nature. For example, nobody is allowed to threaten you or damage your property.
Debt collectors can't come to your home during “unusual” hours, defined as before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., nor can they do it in a way that they know will be inconvenient for you.
If they do show up, there’s hardly anything most debt collectors can do besides ask you for money. Your worst fears about collectors backing up a truck and loading it with your valuables are extremely unlikely to materialize.
In some cases, debt collectors say they’re going to come to your residence, but they have no intention of doing so, making it an empty threat.
If you owe money on unsecured debts such as credit cards or student loans, your personal property (your house and the things inside of it) are typically not at risk.
Those loans are “unsecured” because you did not pledge any collateral to get the loan. As a result, the lender generally has no legal right to take your personal property. They can bring down your credit scores, charge late fees, and take legal action against you, but they can’t walk up to your house and take valuables.
Eventually, after a lender successfully brings legal action against you, the lender might be able to take assets without your permission. But you’ll know about that well in advance, and you’ll hear about it from a judge (or a legal document from the state), not a debt collector who shows up with a moving truck. Even in those situations, lenders are more likely to take cash out of your bank accounts, garnish your wages, or grab your tax refund (if you owe the U.S. government). Taking your valuables and selling them for cash is not an efficient way to collect on debts.
If you owe money on secured loans, it is possible for debt collectors to actually show up and take something. The most common example is the repossession of an automobile. If you borrow money to buy a car (or use your title as collateral for a loan), lenders can take the vehicle without your permission.
Even with secured debts, you have rights, and collectors must follow the law. For example, a repossession agent can’t threaten you with physical force, and they can’t destroy property to get into your garage. However, they can get a vehicle that’s parked on private property if it is accessible.
Home loans are another type of loan secured by collateral. If you stop making payments, lenders have a right to foreclose on the home, taking possession and selling the property to get their money back. However, there’s a lengthy process leading up to foreclosure and eventual eviction. In a worst-case scenario, eviction would generally be performed by a law enforcement officer (as opposed to a debt collector).
If debt collectors come to visit you, dealing with them in-person offers little benefit to you.
If a Collector Arrives at Your Home
Fortunately, you’re under no obligation to open the door, nor do you have to speak to anybody.
Avoid In-Person Negotiation
It’s best to deal with creditors in writing or over the phone. The first problem with in-person negotiation is that you don’t know who you’re dealing with. The person may or may not be a legitimate collector, so your security may be at risk. If you hand over money, you just have to hope that it’s going to the right place.
It’s also always best to get agreements from creditors in writing. A verbal discussion with somebody on your porch might not yield the results that you want or expect. You might think that debts are being erased from your credit reports, but if this is not captured in writing, it means nothing from a legal standpoint.
If you’re behind on your bills, you’re probably in a tight financial spot. You need time to review details of any arrangement (and the impact on your budget) before you hand over money or write a check. You’re unlikely to take the time you need with an eager collector breathing down your neck.
Don’t Offer Information to Anybody at Your Door
That makes sense whether you’re expecting bill collectors or not. If somebody asks who you are, find out who they are before sharing your name or any other details.
Debt collectors are not allowed to share information about your debt with anybody except you (and possibly a spouse, depending on state law). If you don’t identify yourself, they don’t know who you are, and they can’t discuss your debt.
Put an End to It
If you’d like to prevent collectors from contacting you (whether in-person or by phone), send a written request asking them to stop. Under federal law, these letters, sometimes known as Cease and Desist letters, must be honored. Send the letter through a shipping method that can be documented (like a carrier that requires a signature or USPS return receipt). After that, your creditors must limit communication to certain subjects, such as confirming your request or sending legal updates. They would not be allowed to come to your house after receiving that request, and you’d be able to sue if they did.
Ask Them to Leave
If you find yourself in an unwanted conversation with a debt collector, ask them to leave. Be polite and respectful—most collectors will honor your request, and there’s no need to make a bad situation worse. If you face resistance, remind them that they’re on private property and you’re asking them to leave. If that doesn’t work, call the police.
Remember, you still have rights even if you’re in debt.
You’re not obligated to talk to anybody. Debt collectors are not the police, and they cannot legally pretend to be law enforcement officers or intimidate you into letting them in. Even the police aren’t allowed to enter your house without a legal reason. An investigator or public official might come to your home to deliver official documents, but they can’t harass you or keep asking for money after you ask them to stop.
How They Find You
Because an in-person visit is unlikely and you can just ask them to leave, you don’t need to go out of your way to hide your location. But dedicated individuals may show up if it’s worth it to them financially. Debt collectors get your address and other useful information from a variety of public and private databases. Companies you do business with might sell your information, while county and voter records are available to just about anybody. The only way to stay hidden is to go completely off the grid, but it’s easier just to send a written request asking collectors to leave you alone.