Talk about an uncomfortable situation. A reader recently contacted us about a message she found on her answering machine. The recorded message was regarding a collection for her father who does not live with her:
I’m very concerned that a debt collector may have broken the law. Long story short, I recently received this message from a debt collection company. Play to hear voice mail message »
I’m concerned because this message wasn’t for me—it was actually for my father, who lives in another state. As far as I know, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors are only allowed to contact a relative or neighbor once in attempt to reach the debtor… but I was under the impression that legally, debt collectors are not allowed to share “why” they’re calling (in an attempt to collect a debt) unless they are speaking to the actual account holder, right? My father would be mortified if he knew that I knew he were having financial problems. Did this collector break the law?
— Cindy (A Concerned Family Member)
Cindy raises an important question. When debt collectors leave messages for debtors on answering machines, how much can they say? The answer is not as clear as you might think it would be.
“The law on debt collection voice mails is unclear, as the most current case regarding the issue is on appeal” Sonya Smith-Valentine, an attorney with Valentine Legal Group, LLC, points out.
I’ll get to that case in a moment, but let me back up and describe the problem first. A federal consumer protection law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), describes practices debt collectors can’t engage in when trying to collect debts. But it includes no specific instructions for voice mail messages.
[Infographic: What to do if a Debt Collector Calls]
“You have to go back to the FDCPA when it was first promulgated,” says Joel D. Leiderman, Senior Associate Attorney at the collection law firm of Forster & Garbus LLP in Commack, NY. “Most people didn’t even have answering machines then. These are issues that weren’t contemplated.”
The FDCPA does say that a debt collector is breaking that law if it fails to disclose, in its initial communication with the consumer (which could be in writing or orally) “that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” In addition, in subsequent communications, the debt collector must disclose that the communication is from a debt collector.
Ok, so that seems simple enough. The debt collector should provide that information when leaving a message, right?
Not so fast.
If the debt collector knows he is only leaving a message for the debtor, it would seem to be fairly straightforward. But what if that message might be heard by someone else, as in Cindy’s case?
The FDCPA also gives debtors a degree of privacy. It prohibits debt collectors from communicating with someone other than the debtor except to locate the debtor (exceptions include the debtor’s attorney, a cosigner or spouse). In those cases, the collector can identify himself, state that he is confirming or correcting location information concerning the consumer, and, only if expressly requested, identify his employer. But he cannot state that the consumer he’s trying to locate owes any debt; and he generally can’t communicate with such person more than once.