To effectively deal with debt collectors and enforce your rights under the law, you should learn what collectors can and can’t do after a debt goes to collection. For example, you should know that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) places strict limits on who debt collectors can contact about a debt you owe. (The FDCPA also limits when a debt collector can communicate with you. Learn more in Can a Debt Collector Call Me Early in the Morning?)
For the most part, collection agencies and collectors can communicate only with you. Generally, the law prohibits debt collectors from telling friends, relatives, employers, neighbors, or other third parties about the debt they claim you owe. Though, the law provides a few exceptions to this general rule; for example, a collector can contact your attorney. And in a few circumstances, collectors can contact third parties to get location information about you. Read on to learn the rules.
General Rule: No Communication With Third Parties
The FDCPA expressly prohibits debt collectors from communicating with third parties about your debt, with a few limited exceptions. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c).
Congress enacted this rule to protect the privacy of debtors. This rule has implications beyond merely talking to third parties. For example, leaving a message on voicemail that could be heard by others would violate this rule.
Exceptions to the Rule
The FDCPA specifies a few exceptions to the general rule that a debt collector may not communicate with third parties about your debt.
Contact Permitted for a Few Specific Parties
A collector is allowed to communicate information about your debt to:
- your attorney
- a credit reporting agency
- the creditor to whom you originally owed the debt
- the creditor or debt collector’s attorney
- your spouse
- your parent if you are a minor (state law determines at what age a child is still a minor)
- your guardian or executor, and
- a codebtor (someone who’s obligated to pay the debt with you).
You Can Consent to Third Party Contacts
The debt collector can talk to someone else about your debt if you agree to the communication. Consent is valid only if you give it directly to the collector. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c).
Even if someone else is making payments on your bill, the collector can’t talk to that person unless you explicitly give permission to the collector.
A Court Can Allow Third Party Contacts
If a court of law rules that a collector can contact a third party about your debt, the debt collector will be allowed to do so. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c). But this rarely happens.
Contact Permitted to Get Location Information
A debt collector can contact a third party for the narrow purpose of getting your home address and phone number, or your work address. (15 U.S. Code § 1692b).
In these communications, the collector must comply with additional rules. The collector must:
- state that he or she is confirming or correcting location information about the consumer
- not use the debt collection agency’s name unless the third party requests it
- not state that the consumer owes a debt
- not communicate with anyone more than once (unless the third party requests more contact or the information previously provided was not correct or complete)
- not use a postcard
- not use any language or symbol on an envelope that would indicate the communication is about a debt, and
- not contact anyone else if the consumer has an attorney, and the collector is aware of that fact, unless the attorney fails to respond within a reasonable amount of time to communication from the debt collector.
Contact in Post-Judgment Collection Efforts
The prohibition on third-party contact loosens a bit if the collector is trying to collect on a judgment. Contact in this context must be reasonably necessary to enforcement of the judgment. For example, a debt collector can send a garnishment order to your employer. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c).
FDCPA Restrictions Apply to Debt Collectors, Not Creditors—Sometimes Debt Buyers
The requirements and limitations under the FDCPA apply to debt collectors, but generally not original creditors. If the creditor is a debt buyer—a person or business who regularly buys debts and tries to collect on them—the FDCPA might or might not apply depending on the circumstances. (To learn more, see Does the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Apply to Debt Buyers?)
Talk to a Lawyer
If you need help dealing with a debt collector—especially if you think you’re being unfairly harassed—consider talking to a consumer protection lawyer or a debt relief lawyer to find out about your options. You have the right to sue debt collectors that violate your rights under federal law. If you win a lawsuit under the FDCPA, you can recover money for any injuries, up to $1000 in additional damages, and attorneys' fees. (15 U.S. Code § 1692c).