Debt collector calls can be frustrating and overwhelming. You may be wondering if the constant calls are ever going to end. You may also be pondering whether the seemingly endless phone calls are a violation of the law. Can you sue a debt collector for calling you too often?
The answer to this question used to be: it depends. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, (FDCPA), prohibits debt collectors from engaging "in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt." (See 15 U.S.C. § 1692d). The statute includes a non-exhaustive list of conduct that constitutes harassment, oppression, or abuse, including:
[C]ausing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number." 15 U.S.C. § 1692d(5).
While you may firmly believe that collection phone calls you receive are obviously intended to harass you, most collection calls are just collection calls. Creditors and debt collectors are just trying to get their money. But when do they cross the line? When does the behavior transcend a collection attempt and become harassment?
On November 30, 2021, the new FDCPA rules take effect. The Consumer Protection Financial has finally established a presumption on the number of calls debt collectors may place to reach consumers on a weekly basis. A debt collector is presumed to violate federal law if the debt collector places telephone calls to a particular person in connection with the collection of a particular debt more than seven times within seven consecutive days or within seven consecutive days of having had a telephone conversation about the debt.
Intent to Annoy, Abuse, or Harass
“Intent” is the key here. Over the course of many years and thousands of legal cases, courts have narrowed down the meaning of “intent” in the realm of debt collection. Since you cannot get inside the mind of a debt collector, intent may be inferred from circumstantial evidence, such as the nature, pattern, and frequency of the debt collection calls.
The first and most important thing you should understand is that, absent some kind of outrageous conduct, (e.g. threats of violence or arrest, blatant lies or misrepresentations, lewd comments or use of obscenities), repeated phone calls do not violate the FDCPA. Constant phone calls, even calling multiple times a day, is generally not a violation of the law, in and of itself.
Timing of Calls, Hang Ups, Voice Mails, Cease and Desist
What courts focus on is the background. Not just how many calls, but did you answer the phone? Did they leave voice messages, and if so, what did they say? Did you tell them not to call you? Did they call third parties?
Whether or not you actually answer the phone calls from a debt collector is also critical. In sum, if you never answer the calls, and the debt collector doesn't leave voice messages, they can essentially call whenever they want between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. The inference here is that the debt collector is just trying to get in contact with you – not harass you. This is particularly true if you never deny owing the debt. Presumably, if you sent them a validation letter denying the debt, this would factor in to how many times they can call you, and would create a perception of abuse because they have notice that you deny the debt.
But if you answer the phone and tell a debt collector to cease and desist, (e.g. “stop calling me”), intent to harass may be inferred if they keep calling you thereafter. Moreover, if you answer the phone and are subjected to verbal abuse or misrepresentations about the law or the alleged debt, the existence of additional or consistent collection calls would weigh in favor of harassment. Also, the “placement of telephone calls without meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity” is prohibited. Again, the rules relating to the amount of telephone calls depends on multiple factors. Failure of the caller to identify themselves, in combination with a multitude of calls would seem to skew toward a violation of the FDCPA.
Calls to Third Parties
Calls to your place of employment, to your ex-husband/wife, to your relatives, or to your neighbors are subject to a separate provision of the FDCPA. Communication relating to debt collection is prohibited:
at the consumer's place of employment if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication. 15 U.S.C. §1692c(a)(3)
Calls at work, (or to any third party), could also be violations and considered abusive. But they are also considered in the totality of circumstances. The analysis is always whether the communications were intended “to annoy, abuse, or harass.” In other words, the more collection calls to your work or to other third parties, the more likely the calls will be found to be annoying or harassing. Keep in mind that “communication” means the “conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly.” If the third party has no reason to know the call is from a debt collector, that call may be permissible.
Calls to third parties should be a one-time event. They are limited to asking for contact information about the debtor. If a debt collector discloses that you owe a debt or repeatedly communicates with third-parties, they are likely in violation of the law.