Dear Consumer Ed:

I lost my job 13 months ago.  I have managed to keep up with my rent, but I have other bills that I simply cannot pay.  My phone rings constantly with calls from debt collectors. I am scared to talk to them. My sister told me that if I don’t talk to them, I could go to jail. What should I do? 

Consumer Ed says:

You cannot be put in jail for failure to pay a debt. In fact, if a debt collector threatens you with imprisonment he is breaking the law.  The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects consumers from being harassed by debt collectors (defined as a business, attorney or collection agency that is collecting a debt on behalf of another business).  Debt collection agencies may not represent falsely that you have committed a crime or that you will be arrested or imprisoned. They cannot garnish your wages or take your home or possessions without a court judgment. (An exception exists for federally guaranteed student loans that are in default.) 

Debt collectors are forbidden by law from harassing you. For example, they may not:

  • use or threaten to use violence or criminal means to harm you, your reputation or your property;
  • use obscene language;
  • telephone you, or cause a telephone to ring, repeatedly or continuously with the intent to annoy or harass;
  • call before 8:00 AM or after 9:00 PM local time
  • place telephone calls without meaningful disclosures of their identity.


If you owe a debt but do not have money available to pay it, ask the debt collector if you can work out a payment plan. Be honest about what you can afford to pay. If the agency does agree to a new payment plan, get it in writing.

If the debt collector does not agree to a payment plan, or if you cannot afford to pay even a small amount each month, you can still get the debt collector to stop calling you by sending a request in writing via certified mail. Request a return receipt so that you have proof of delivery. Once the agency receives your letter, its employees can only contact you to explain what action they plan to take. After that, contact must stop.  You can also request that a collection agency not call you at your place of work by sending a written request via the method described above.

Remember, though, even though the debt collector stops contacting you he can still send negative information to the credit-reporting agencies, sue you in court, garnish your wages or file a lien against your property once a judgment is issued by the court.  If you are sued for a debt, DO NOT ignore the lawsuit.  This can end up causing more problems for you. Instead, you should respond appropriately to the lawsuit, either yourself or through an attorney.
 
For more information about what a debt collector can and cannot do, go to www.consumered.com.   To file a complaint against a debt collector, contact the FTC at www.ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

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