What Is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?

The FDCPA Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

A couple sit on their couch, reviewing their bills while talking on the phone to a debt collector
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Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Lenders have a right to collect what’s owed to them. But fortunately for debtors, there are laws on the books that govern these collection activities. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a federal law that prohibits debt collectors from using practices that are abusive or deceptive.

If you’re being harassed by debt collectors, keep reading to find out what this law is, what it covers, and how it works.

  • Acronym: FDCPA

Definition and Examples of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. It was a response to unscrupulous debt collection practices, including harassment, abuse, and misleading claims. Prior to the establishment of the FDCPA, there were no laws or procedures to address these ruthless practices. Creditors have every right to collect the money owed to them, but the Act requires them to use more humane alternatives than some had been using.

“This federal law prevents debt collection companies from collecting debts from individuals through deceptive, harassing, or abusive processes,” Leslie Tayne, founder and head attorney at debt solutions law firm Tayne Law Group, told The Balance in an email. “This includes using harassing language, calling individuals late at night, and pursuing them for a debt they don’t actually owe.” 

Some of the practices forbidden by the FDCPA include:

  • Threatening or using violence or other criminal means against the borrower, or the borrower’s reputation or property
  • Using obscene or profane language
  • Publishing a list of borrowers (except to a credit reporting agency).
  • Advertising the sale of the debt
  • Repeatedly calling a phone number to harass or annoy the borrower
  • Falsely representing the amount owed or the legal status of the debt
  • Pretending to be an attorney
  • Threatening arrest or imprisonment
  • Falsely implying the borrower has committed a crime to provoke feelings of embarrassment
  • Failing to acknowledge that a disputed debt is indeed being disputed
  • Failing to use the true name of the debt collector’s company
  • Soliciting postdated checks or withdrawals to avoid criminal prosecution
  • Threatening to deposit postdated checks or postdated withdrawals
  • Calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. based on the borrower’s local time
  • Calling the borrower’s place of employment if the debt collector knows this is prohibited
  • Contacting friends and family members about the borrower’s debt

The FDCPA rules only apply to third-party debt collectors, not the original creditor, Tayne explained.

How the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Works

Debt collectors are familiar with this law, but some of them may count on you not knowing it well. It’s not enough to just tell them over the phone to stop contacting you, or to contact you via email or through your lawyer. You need to tell them in writing, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides sample letters that you can use.

After you’ve made your wishes known, or if the debt collectors commit any of the other violations listed above, you can take action against them. 

“If a company breaks any of the requirements under the FDCPA, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or even sue them,” Tayne said. “Keep a log of any and all correspondences with the debt collector, including emails, letters, and phone call times and who you spoke to at the agency.” And if you don’t believe the debt is accurate, she recommends disputing it.

Tayne shared two examples of how you can use the FDCPA to protect yourself from overly aggressive debt collectors.

Limit How Debt Collectors Can Contact You  

“Under this law, debt collectors cannot contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., they cannot contact you at work after you tell them not to, [and] they cannot contact you through your attorney,” Tayne said. In addition, if you ask them to stop contacting you altogether, they must cease contact.   

The CFPB added new rules regarding communication via modern technology in October 2020, though they will not take effect until January 2022. Under the new rules, borrowers can decide how they would prefer to communicate: email, text messages, etc. In addition, debt collectors cannot call an individual more than seven times within seven consecutive days.

Ensure That Debt Collectors Don’t Lie

Tayne said debt collectors cannot exaggerate the amount of debt you owe. They also can’t exaggerate the legal ramifications, such as threatening to send you to jail.

Exceptions to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

However, not all types of debt are covered by the FDCPA, and not all practices are forbidden. For example, the Act does not cover business debts. Also, even if you choose to refuse all communications and choose not to negotiate with a debt collector, they can file a lawsuit to sue you for collection of the debt. And if your debt collector obtains a court order, they can garnish your paycheck and withdraw money from your bank account.

Also, beware of fake debt collectors. Never provide personal information, like your Social Security number or bank account number—especially if you don’t recognize the debt.