Key Takeaways

  • A debt collector is an individual or company tasked with collecting past-due debts owed to third parties.

  • Debt collectors may attempt to reach you directly by phone, postal mail, email, or text message.

  • There are debt collection laws in place designed to help protect consumers, so it’s important to know your rights.

If you have unpaid credit card debt or other types of debt, it usually doesn't just go away. When a debt is past due, your creditor(s) may hire a debt collector to collect the money you owe.

What is a debt collector?

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the debt collector definition is "a person or a company that regularly collects debts owed to others, usually when those debts are past-due." Creditors may have their own debt collection department, or they may hire an outside agency to collect debts on their behalf.

Why would a debt collector call me?

A debt collector may attempt to reach you if a creditor believes you're past due on a debt. If a debt collector can’t reach you or doesn’t have your contact information, they are permitted to contact your friends and family members. However, when contacting third parties, debt collectors are limited in what they’re able to say.

Debt collectors can contact you through phone, email, or text messages. They may also send you a letter in the mail.

Are there debt collection laws that protect older adults?

Yes. There are debt collector laws in place designed to help protect consumers, so it’s important to know your rights. Debt collectors cannot contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. They’re also not allowed to call you at work if you say you can’t receive calls in the workplace.

Harassment from debt collectors is illegal under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This law was created to discourage debt collection agencies from using unfair and predatory collection practices. Under this law, debt collectors are forbidden to:

  • Call you repeatedly with the intention of harassing or annoying you
  • Make threats of physical violence
  • Use obscene language
  • Lie about the amount you actually owe
  • Pretend to be from the government or a lawyer’s office
  • Threaten the consequence of arrest or legal action (if it's untrue)
  • Publish lists of people who refuse to pay their debts

In addition, debt collectors must always identify themselves immediately when they call you and provide validating information.

Should I answer debt collector calls? Can I ignore a debt collector?

If you have unpaid debts, it may be tempting to screen or ignore your calls to avoid talking to a debt collector. But there are some very good reasons to answer the phone when a debt collector calls:

  • Ignoring debt collection calls may make things easier for a while, but it won’t make the problem disappear.
  • Your debt situation could snowball and potentially turn into a bigger issue down the road.
  • Your credit score could take a hit if you repeatedly ignore calls from debt collection agencies. This might make it difficult to take out a loan in the future—or even get a part-time job, since many employers run credit checks prior to hiring.

What to do if a debt collector calls you

When a debt collector calls you, the first step is to make sure they're a legitimate debt collector and that your debt is real. If they don’t offer this information up front, ask the person calling:

  • Their name and company
  • The name of the creditor you owe
  • The amount of debt you owe
  • How you can verify that the debt is yours

What if I don't believe I owe a debt?

If you're told you owe a debt and you don't think it's yours or you think it's a scam, you have the right to dispute it. Start by sending a written letter to the debt collection agency contesting the debt—and make sure you do it within 30 days of being contacted by a debt collector. In your letter, request verification of the total amount you owe. It's a smart idea to send the letter via certified mail and ask for a return receipt. That way you know your request was received.

How can I stop a debt collector from contacting me?

There are several ways to stop debt collectors from contacting you. The first is the most obvious: pay off your debt. If you're unable to pay what you owe right now, your other options include:

  • Settling the debt with your creditors: With debt settlement, you can negotiate with your creditors to pay off your debt for less than what you owe. However, there are drawbacks. You must have the cash on hand to make a lump-sum payment. And if your forgiven debt is greater than $600, you may have to pay taxes on that amount.
  • Working with a credit counselor: Credit counseling is a debt relief option in which you receive impartial, one-on-one guidance from a certified counselor. Credit counselors specialize in credit card debt versus other types of debt (e.g., mortgages and medical bills).

    A certified credit counselor can help you create a sensible budget and prioritize your spending. They can also help you set up a debt management plan. A debt management plan lets you roll multiple credit card balances into one monthly payment at a reduced interest rate. It can help you pay off your debt fully without worrying about late fees and repeated calls from debt collectors.

Receiving calls from debt collectors can be both frustrating and anxiety-provoking, but knowing your rights can help eliminate unnecessary stress. If you're struggling with a debt collection issue despite your best efforts, you can submit a complaint with the CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).

Want more financial management tips? Stop by our Money for Older Adults resource hub.