7 things debt collectors aren't allowed to do

Being in debt is not easy. Being hounded by an aggressive collector can make a difficult situation even more so. The 30 million Americans that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates have accounts in collection should be aware that some of the shady tactics used by collection agencies are forbidden by the law.

There are multiple examples in recent years of the FTC targeting underhanded tactics by collectors, with numerous lawsuits filed alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Some tactics that collectors illegally use, according to the agency, include falsely representing themselves as a credit-reporting company, misrepresenting the amount owed, trying to collect interest or fees in excess of what is permitted, and contacting debtors with a postcard.

Here are seven of the most common tactics used by collectors that are illegal:

  • Lying. A collection agency can't tell a consumer that they're going to be arrested if they don't pay up right away, or other tall tales to try to force repayment.
  • Masquerading. A collector is not allowed to pose as a government agent or any law enforcement official to try to trick a consumer into making a payment.
  • Threatening debtors. They can't call threatening violence, or a lawsuit if they're not actually filing a lawsuit, or make any other threats about consequences that are not accurate.
  • Telling others. Collectors are not allowed to tell your friends, family or co-workers about your debts and use them to press you to make a payment.
  • Calling in the wee hours. Calls may be placed to your home between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time. Calls outside of that are considered harassment.
  • Using profanity. The law requires debtors be treated with dignity and professionalism and forbids the use of obscenities and other foul language.
  • Pretending to use government documents. Collectors cannot send out materials that appear to be official government notices as a way to make debtors think they're risking arrest, prosecution or running afoul of a government agency.
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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.