Debt collectors will buy your debt entirely for pennies on the dollar, or they may collect for the original creditor for a contingency fee.
The debt collection industry is an almost $13 billion enterprise that employs over 100,000 people. Debt collection agencies often compete to most effectively collect debt on behalf of the original creditor because they want repeat business.
Unfortunately, the nature of the business gives debt collectors the incentive to break the law to get people to pay delinquent debts. If you’re facing harassment, a California debt collector harassment lawyer can assess your case, help you understand your rights, and take legal action to stop abusive practices.
Debt Collectors Know That People Fear Them
The debt collector will find your contact information. They will then use it to contact you to speak with you about a debt. In many cases, debtors fear debt collectors and the potential consequences of not paying their debt. They can even fear losing their job and other punishments (while debt collectors can sue you in court, they do not have any right to impose punishments).
Consumers may receive communications from many debt collectors throughout the lifetime of the debt. Over time, one debt collector may sell the debt to another. Each new debt collector will attempt to contact the consumer.
Congress Passed a Law to Rein in Debt Collector’s Questionable Tactics
The problem is when the debt collector resorts to questionable methods to collect the debt. Congress sought to address a particular growing problem regarding aggressive and abusive debt collectors when it passed the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977 (FDCPA).
Congress intended to strike a balance between the interests of the debt collectors, who still had a right to collect debts, and the consumer, who has a right to freedom from harassment.
FDCPA specifically stated that:
“A debt collector may not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.”
Debt Collectors May Not Make Repeated Phone Calls to You
One specific provision in the law prohibited:
“Causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number.”
However, for over 40 years, the law did not define “continuous” attempts to engage in conversation, nor did it define “harass.”
Debt Collectors Can Harass You Just By Placing a Phone Call
Debt collectors can still harass or annoy debtors, even if they never speak with them. Debt collectors may call repeatedly because they do not want to leave a message. They know that a recording of what they say can open them up to liability.
Over time, many debt collectors adopted the practice of calling repeatedly without leaving a voice mail message. Since people do not always pick up their phones when they do not recognize a phone number, they often deal with ringing phones.
You do not need to answer calls for them to harass you. The phone can ring at an inopportune time. Even seeing that a debt collector is calling you can stress you out. Seeing how motivated they are to reach you can add an extra level of distress.
Federal Guidance Now Defines What It Means to Harass You
Federal agencies have the power to make rules regarding debt collection. As relevant here, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published a rule that defines harassment. The CFPB issued Debt Collection Rules that explicitly state how often a debt collector can call. These new rules are called Regulation F.
The new rules create a presumption that the debt collector has committed harassment when they:
- Call you more than seven times in seven days about a debt
- Contact you within seven days after actually having a conversation with you regarding the debt
You Do Have to Speak to the Debt Collector for It to Harass You
Under the first alternative, you can hold the debt collector liable even if they never speak to you. They can face penalties if you never picked up the phone and answered their call. The mere fact that they attempted to call you more than seven times in seven days is enough to create the presumption of harassment.
The limits listed above are not necessarily a hard cap on the number of calls. They are just presumptions. The debt collector’s liability depends on your situation.
The Debt Collector Can Also Harass You Under Other Circumstances
Note that the rules refer to creating a presumption of harassment. The debt collector may harass you even if they did not contact you in the manner addressed in the Debt Collection Rules.
For example, let’s say the debt collector called you seven times or less in seven days. However, they placed seven calls back-to-back in one day every hour on the hour. Then, you can hold the debt collector liable for harassment.
The new CFPB rules only apply to phone calls. Debt collectors may still contact you more frequently by other means, including texts, emails, or social media messages (although you still have protections under the law for these communications).
The Debt Collector Can Break the Law With One Phone Call
If you do answer the phone, tell the debt collector that they can no longer call you (either in general or during specific times). The Debt Collection Rules do not replace the overall prohibition on the debt collector calling or contacting you when you have told them not to do so.
You can still stop all calls and communications entirely when you tell the debt collector to no longer contact you. You can do this verbally or in writing (although writing is better). Then, the debt collector may violate FDCPA if they even make one phone call.
You Can Hold Debt Collectors Liable for One Abusive Call
In addition, the new rules leave in place the general prohibition against calls that annoy, intimidate, or otherwise abuse a debtor. Even one abusive or oppressive phone call or communication will violate the FDCPA.
For example, if the debt collector threatened you or said something designed to shock you, you can hold them liable for that one instance of conduct. For example, one debt collector notoriously threatened a family with digging their loved one up from the ground if they failed to pay a leftover debt from the funeral. Debt collectors cannot curse you out or even insult you.
What to Do When a Debt Collector Has Broken the Law
You have several legal options when a debt collector has harassed you through repeated phone calls.
The first option is to file a complaint with:
- The Federal Trade Commission
- The CFPB
- Your state’s attorney general
- The state agency that regulates debt collectors
A complaint to a government agency may spur regulators to take action against a debt collector. The government may levy a stiff fine, or they may even bar them from the business entirely. The government will not assess a penalty to distribute to you.
You Can File a Lawsuit Under FDCPA
To receive compensation under FDCPA, you must take a proactive approach. The law gives you a private right of action to sue the debt collector directly for what they have done. You do not have to wait for the government to do something to punish the debt collectors. Besides, when the government takes action, you do not necessarily get money for it, even though you are the victim.
The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act makes harassment illegal as one of many prohibitions. First, you will need to file a lawsuit against the debt collector. If you sue under FDCPA, you must file your lawsuit in federal court.
How to Prove a Violation of the FDCPA
Based on the legal interpretation of the new CFPB rule, you can prove harassment from your telephone records. You can demonstrate the number of calls that came from a specific number. You may even show that you spoke to the debt collector based on the length of your conversation. Your attorney can also subpoena the debt collector’s phone records in the discovery phase of a lawsuit.
When you speak to your attorney for the first time, you can tell them exactly how often the debt collector tried calling you and when.
Damages in an FDCPA Lawsuit
If you can prove a violation of the FDCPA, you can receive the following in compensation:
- Statutory damages of up to $1,000 per debt collector (not per violation of the FDCPA or each illegal phone call)
- Emotional distress damages caused by the debt collector’s harassment
- Embarrassment or humiliation
- Medical expenses if you needed care for the harm that the debt collector caused
- Lost income if the debt collector’s repeated calls harmed your productivity at work
- The legal costs to file your lawsuit
State Court Lawsuits for Debt Collector Misconduct
Alternatively, you can file a lawsuit in state court, citing state laws that make debt collector harassment illegal. Each state will also have laws regulating debt collectors and forbidding certain practices.
You can even file a case based on certain common law theories. For example, if the debt collector has said or done something that reasonably makes you fear for your safety, you may even sue under civil harassment laws.
Seek Legal Representation From a Consumer Protection Attorney
If you believe a debt collector violated the law, speak with an attorney to learn your legal rights. You may not even know the debt collector did something illegal, but it does not feel right.
Either way, get legal advice to determine whether you have a lawsuit against the debt collector.
In addition, your lawyer can find the right party to sue. Some debt collectors have complex structures to make it as hard as possible for you to locate and sue them. You may find several shell companies and LLCs to throw you off the trail. If you file a lawsuit against the wrong company, the court will dismiss it. Your attorney will investigate the matter and determine which party should be liable for the violation.
You can sue the debt collector individually or as part of a class action lawsuit. If the debt collector harassed you, chances are they did the same thing to others. If you can join together in a class action lawsuit, you can more efficiently sue the debt collector. You will file one lawsuit, and you will receive your share of the settlement or award based on how many people are in the overall class.
Consumer Protection Lawyers Work for You on a Contingency Basis
It does not cost you anything out of your pocket to hire an FDCPA attorney. In these cases, consumer protection lawyers work for you on a contingency basis. They do not receive any legal fees unless you win your case. Their fees come from your settlement or jury award. If you do not win your case, you will not receive a bill for your time. Thus, there is no risk to you to hire an FDCPA lawyer to take action against the debt collector.
Discuss a Possible Case With a Consumer Protection Attorney
You do not have to endure harassment by any party, including debt collectors. When collection companies cross the line, they should face penalties for legal violations. However, it is up to you to hold them accountable by filing a claim.
Never hesitate to protect yourself against harassing debt collectors. Consult a consumer protection attorney in California immediately.