Tired of debt collectors’ harassing calls? Their newest tactics could involve pestering you through texts and emails — maybe even on Facebook.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a final rule to update to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The good news: Collectors will be limited to calling you seven times a week per debt. The bad news: They can send you unlimited emails and texts, and they can potentially contact you via social media.
In theory, the act was updated because back when it was passed in 1977, the technology didn’t exist to contact you via text message or email.
The FTC enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which was originally passed to provide consumers with legal protection from abusive, unfair or deceptive debt collection practices.
Both consumer advocates and debt collection companies say the law is out of date, according to Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Washington, D.C.
And although the rule opens the door for additional communications from debt collectors, he noted that it also clarifies that consumers have the right to opt-out of electronic communications. But opening up the electronic channels could mean even more options for debt collectors to gather info and harass you.
“The likelihood that debt collectors will use social media messaging apps to reach consumers is leading to more questions about the right to privacy,” McClary wrote in an email.
Here’s what you need to know about the new rule and how to protect yourself from unwanted communication.
How Changes to the FDCPA Could Affect Debt Collections
The change to FDCPA focuses on debt collection communications, updating the ways debt collectors can contact you, but also clarifying how you can limit which means debt collectors can communicate with you. But the responsibility falls on you to control the contact.
Here’s how the changes could affect you.
How Debt Collectors Could Use Electronic Communications
According to the new rule, debt collectors can now contact you via email and text.
There’s no mention about a limit for the number of contacts when it comes to electronic communications. If you don’t have an unlimited text message plan, one eager debt collector could send your cell phone bill through the roof pretty quickly.
But just because a collector sends a text or email doesn’t mean you’re stuck receiving endless messages.
The rule requires debt collectors to offer a “reasonable and simple method” for opting out of future communications via these methods.
And if the debt collector contacts you via electronic communications, you can place a cease communication request via the same method of communication. So if the debt collector texts you, you can text them back to stop contacting you via text.
A debt validation letter must include how much you owe, who you owe it to and what action you can take. It is one of the main tools to catch mistakes or frauds.
However, one of the protections within the current FDCPA is the right to demand a debt validation letter, which third-party debt collectors are required to send to you upon request.
If debt collectors send you an email, they could potentially use it as an opportunity to start collecting payments without clearly explaining information you have the right to know, according to McClary.
“There’s the possibility that they could include docusign elements in these emails that allow for people to request validation of debt — or to enter into agreements to repay the debt,” he said.
Social Media Options for Debt Collection
The change also left the door open for social media exchanges, which could offer new opportunities for collection agencies to reach consumers where they are.
However, the current law prohibits debt collectors from disclosing any information about the debt — or even the reason for the contact — to anyone other than the person who owes the debt, according to McClary. That discretion becomes more challenging in the world of social media.
“There’s one debt collector that even suggested that… they’ll be able to use social media tools like WhatsApp to contact people,” McClary said. “That’s a little more alarming. There are privacy issues when you start talking about social media as a communications tool for debt collectors.”
How Many Calls From a Debt Collector Is Considered Harassment?
Additionally, the rule states that making more than seven calls in one week in regards to a specific debt is considered harassment. And once the collector has spoken with the consumer, the collection agency must wait a week before calling the consumer again in regards to the debt.
That may seem reasonable, but many people who are overdue on debts rarely owe on only one account, McClary points out.
“If you think about it, a person might not just owe one debt — they may have three debts in collections, so that’s 21 attempted contacts per week that would be allowed,” he said. “It’s easy to understand how this might add a little more stress than some of the regulations that are currently in place.”
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself
The new rules won’t go into effect until a year from now, McClary pointed out, so you have some time to prepare.
When a debt collector does reach out to you, remember that you have the power to control the communication — if you’re on a limited texting plan, for instance, you can immediately respond and demand that they contact you by another method.
But even if you don’t think you owe the debt or think it may be a scam, you should keep at least one line of communication open with the collection agency.
“Their efforts to collect the debt will continue regardless of whether you talk to them or not,” McClary said. “It’s better to have a conversation and know what their next steps are going to be rather than guess… and proceed based on the hope that they’re not going to escalate the account or take some type of legal action.”
If you’re getting flustered by phone calls or texts, you can request mail communication options including debt validation letters and debt verification letters. You can also demand that debt collectors stop contacting you at certain times or places (like your work).
Some states provide consumer protection above and beyond the FDCPA, which you can find out about by heading to your state’s attorney general website.
The Bureau intends to issue a second debt collection rule focused on consumer disclosures in December, so stay tuned.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at Codetic. Read her bio and other work here, then say hi to her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.