Washington

Debtors' Rights: Dealing with Collection Agencies

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Collection agencies are calling me nonstop. What can I do?

This publication should help you understand debt collection practices and your rights when dealing with debt collectors. If a collection agency is suing you, or if there is already a judgment against you, see our publications Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit or packets on How to Answer a Lawsuit for Debt Collection or How to Claim Personal Property Exemptions. Get these at our websitewww.washingtonlawhelp.org. Or call the CLEAR intake line. (Contact info at the end of this publication.)

What is a collection agency?

Federal and Washington state laws define a collection agency as a business or organization whose principal purpose is the collection of debts. It does not include the credit or collection office of a business whose primary purpose is not debt collection. Example:  The credit office of a large department store or car dealership, or a bank that issues credit cards and attempts to collect a debt, is not a "collection agency" within the meaning of state and federal law. Collection of debts is not their main business.

*Lawyers who regularly collect consumer debt are also "debt collectors" who must comply with the federal law.

There are both federal and state laws protecting debtors whom collection agencies contact. In Washington, these laws are the "Collection Agency Act" (in RCW 19.16.100) and the "Consumer Protection Act" (in RCW 19.86.010). The federal act is the "Fair Debt Collection Practices Act" (in 15 U.S.C. 1692). You can find these laws at your local library or online.
Read on for some of your rights under debt collection acts and garnishment laws.

What if I do not think I owe the debt?

When a collection agency first contacts you in writing regarding a debt, it must provide you a written notice that has certain information. (If the collection agency first contacts you by phone, insist that they also contact you in writing.) The first written notice from a collection agency must have:

  • The collection agency's name and address

  • The amount of the debt, stating the original debt and a breakdown of other costs or interest

  • The name of the creditor you owe

  • A statement that unless you dispute the debt within 30 days after you get the notice, the agency will assume the debt is valid

  • A statement that, if requested within 30 days, the collector will provide the name of the original creditor, if different from the collector

  • A statement that if you notify the debt collector in writing (within 30 days of receiving the notice) that you dispute the debt, the collection agency will mail you verification of the debt

*Every communication from a collector must clearly disclose that the purpose of the communication is to collect a debt, and that it will use any information it gets from you for that purpose.

You must notify the collection agency in writing within the 30-day period described above if you disagree that you owe the debt or any portion of it. Once the collection agency gets your written notice that you dispute the debt, it must stop collection of the debt until:

  • it has proof that you do owe the debt AND

  • it sends you that proof

Keep copies of the letter you send the collection agency. Whenever possible, send letters to collection agencies by certified mail, return receipt requested. See Form Letter #1 at the end of this publication.
Some examples of disputes of debts:

  • You do not believe you owe the debt or the amount as stated

  • You already paid the debt

  • You had medical coupons to pay for a debt, and the creditor should have billed the state

  • You were hospitalized, you told the hospital you could not pay for care, and the hospital should have considered payment under a charitable care policy

  • You believe collection of the debt is time-barred (see below)

There are legal time limitations within which the collection agency must start a legal claim against you. Otherwise it is "barred."  This means the collection agency waited too long and cannot bring the claim now. The claim has expired.

The exact time limitation will depend on the basis for the debt or the type of claim being made. Most claims based on written contracts or accounts receivable governed by WA law must be begun within six years. Most claims based on oral contracts or accounts receivable must be begun within three years.    

Can I stop the collection agency from contacting me?

Mostly. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, if you notify the collection agency IN WRITING you want it to stop further communi­cation with you, the collection agency cannot communicate with you further, except:

  • To advise you that it is stopping its effort to collect OR

  • To advise you it intends to take action, such as filing a lawsuit against you

This law applies even if you do owe the debt.

If you write the collection agency such a letter, include the following:

  • Your name and address

  • If available, the account number on the statement you got from the collection agency

  • The date

  • A statement that you are exercising your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

  • A statement that you want the collection agency to stop calling or writing you, or both

See Form Letter #2, at the end of this publication. KEEP A COPY OF THIS LETTER. Mail the original to the collection agency. Mail a copy to the original creditor.

YOU MUST SEND THE COLLECTION AGENCY THE LETTER. If, after you send the letter, the collection agency contacts you again for some reason other than the two reasons stated above, the collection agency has violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Under this law, you may sue the collection agency for money damages and lawyer fees.

*This will not stop the collection agency from suing you. It only stops them from calling and sending you letters.

 

Which property and income does the law protect from debt collection?

Certain kinds of income and property cannot be taken to collect a consumer debt. The kinds of income are: 

  • Social Security

  • Supplemental Security Income

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

  • All pensions (private, federal and civil service) once deposited into your bank account or cashed

  • Labor & Industries disability payments

  • Unemployment Compensation

Some of your wages are also exempt:  The greater of 35 times the current federal minimum wage or 75% of your net wages. ("Net wages" is gross pay minus taxes, Social Security, and other mandatory deductions.)  Call the Department of Labor to find out the current federal minimum wage, or check herehttp://www.dol.gov/whd/flsa/index.htm. Then multiply that amount by 35.

*Example:  As of 2014, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you make less than $253.75 a week net, all your wages are exempt. If you make $400 a week, $300 is ex­empt (since $300 is 75% of your wages, and that amount is more than $253.75).

This income is usually not exempt from garnish­ment for child support payments or taxes.

If your income is exempt from garnishment, let the collection agency know.  Put it in writing to the collection agency. Keep a copy of the letter.

Example:  Your only income is Social Security, which is exempt from garnishment by federal law. You would write just that in your letter. You should also put this information in all your other written correspondence to the agency. (Example: a "cease communication" letter.)

This is not a defense to the underlying claim. It does let the collection agency know your only income is exempt from garnishment. If the collection agency successfully sues you and then garnishes your bank account containing exempt funds, you may be able to sue the collection agency.

Certain property cannot be taken to collect a debt:

  • $125,000 equity in your home

  • Your car, if it is of limited value

  • Your personal belongings, up to a certain monetary limit

For more information, or if a creditor or collector is trying to garnish your income or property, see our publications How to Claim Personal Property Exemptions and Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit.

What are unlawful practices?

Both the Washington Collection Agency Act and the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibit harassment, false or misleading statements and unfair practices by collection agencies. If you believe you a collection agency has unreasonably harassed or misled you, you can sue it. If you win, you can collect damages and lawyer fees. Here are some examples of violations:

  • The collection agency threatens to or actually does tell your employer or neighbors about the debt.

  • The collection agency calls at hours the law says are "unreasonable" (9:00 p.m. - 8:00 a.m. under federal law; 9:00 p.m. –7:30 a.m. under state law).

  • The collection agency threatens you with illegal action (example:  threatening to take money out of your Social Security check, taking other exempt property, or threatening arrest or jail).

  • The debt collector communicates with you or anyone in your household in a way that is harassing, intimidating, threatening, or embarrassing.

  • The debt collector communicates with you or your spouse more than three times in one week.

  • The debt collector sends you notices that deliberately look like government documents or a telegraphic or emergency message.

  • The debt collector cannot ask for a postdated check in order to threaten you with criminal prosecution. The debt collector cannot deposit a postdated check before the date on the check. Also, a collector's acceptance of your postdated check violates the law unless you had three to ten business days' notice before the collector deposited the check.

If you believe that a collection agency has violated your rights under the Washington Collection Agency Act, Consumer Protection Act, or Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or if a collection agency sues you on a debt you do not believe is valid, contact a lawyer. Agencies which take complaints about violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Washington Collection Act are:

 

Department of Licensing
Collection Agency Board
PO Box 9034
Olympia, WA 98507-9034
Phone: 800-451-7985
FAX: 360-750-6699
Email: BLS@dol.wa.gov

Federal Trade Commission
915 Second Avenue, Room 2806
Seattle, Washington 98174

Mail to the Consumer Resource Center nearest you:

 

Bellingham - Island, San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom Counties
103 E. Holly Suite 308
Bellingham, WA. 98225
Telephone: 360-676-2037
Fax: 360-738-6190

Kennewick - Southeast Washington
8127 W. Klamath Ct.
Building 6, Ste. A
Kennewick, WA. 99336-2607
Telephone: 509-734-7140
Fax: 509-734-7285

Seattle - King, Snohomish, Clallam and Jefferson Counties
800 5th Ave., Suite 2000
Seattle, WA. 98104
Telephone: 206-464-7744
Fax: 206-464-6451

Spokane - Northeast Washington
1116 W. Riverside
Spokane, WA. 99201-1194
Telephone: 509-456-3123
Fax: 509-458-3548


Tacoma - Pierce, Mason, Grays Harbor and Kitsap Counties
1250 Pacific Ave., Ste. 105
Tacoma, WA 98402
Telephone: 253-593-2904
Fax: 253-593-2449


Vancouver - Thurston, Lewis, Pacific, Cowlitz, Skamania, Clark and Wahkiakum
1220 Main St. Suite 510
Vancouver, WA. 98660
Telephone: 360-759-2100
Fax: 360-759-2159

What can I do on my own?

Your success in an unfair debt collection practice claim may depend on the strength of your proof of a violation of the law. Here is what you can do:

  1. Set up a place to keep all notes or letters from the collection agency. Keep everything you get from them, including envelopes.

  2. Make notes of every phone call from the collection agency, including the date, time, content and names of people involved in the conversations.

  3. Make notes of the same information if you learn thecollection agency has contacted anyone other than you.

  4. If the stress of dealing with a collection agency begins to result in physical, mental or emotional problems for you, see a counselor or doctor of your choice. Discuss the situation thoroughly with them.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:10 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. CLEAR works with a language line to provide callers with free interpreters as needed. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-888-201-1014 using your preferred TTY or Video relay service.

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). 211 works with a language line to provide callers with free interpreters as needed. Deaf and hearing-impaired callers can call 1-800-833-6384 or 711 to get a free relay operator. They will then connect you with 211. You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.

 

Sample Letters:

Form letter #1:  No-contact letter, verification request.

 

You can use this "no-contact letter" form with collectors. Check the boxes next to any appropriate language in the letter that applies in your case.

This letter includes a general request for verification. If you have specific disputes (for example, if you want to dispute that this is your account), you should ask for information related to those in the verification request, and mention those specific disputes in the letter.


TO:______________________                                                                                              By Certified Mail RRR
_________________________                                                                                              #_________________
_________________________
_________________________

            RE: ACCOUNT #_________________________

Dear Sir/Madam:

I write to request that you stop communications to me regarding my account. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq., requires you to honor my request.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, once I have asked you to stop contacting me, you may only communicate with me to (1) advise me that your further efforts are being terminated, (2) notify me that you may invoke specified remedies that you normally invoke or (3) where applicable, to notify me that you intend to invoke a specified remedy.

Please provide me with the following:

  • Verification of any debt relating to my account
  • The name and address of the original creditor and the current creditor
  • Confirmation that any such debt and the accuracy of the items in the files relating to me will be treated as disputed
  • Forms and assistance I can use to dispute the accuracy of such items

Until advised otherwise, you should consider this debt to be disputed.

Furthermore, I have been the victim of abusive collection practices by agents of your company. Specifically:

 

 

Such practices violate Federal law and place you in jeopardy of legal liability.

I also wish to inform you that my sole source of income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)/ Social Security. As a result, my income is exempt from garnishment for this type of debt. I have no non-exempt assets.

Thank you for your cooperation.
                                                                                                                                   

Dated:                                            

Sincerely,                              

____________________________(print name)

                                                        (street address)               

                                                        (city, state & zip)

 

 

Form letter #2:  No-contact letter, no verification.

You can choose to use the following "no-contact letter form" to deal with collectors. Check the boxes next to any appropriate language in the letter that applies in your case.

 

  • This form letter does not include a request for verification.

TO:_____________________                                                                                                By Certified Mail RRR
_________________________                                                                                              #_________________
_________________________
_________________________

            RE: ACCOUNT #_________________________

Dear Sir/Madam:

I write to request that you stop communications to me regarding my account. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq., requires you to honor my request.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, once I have asked you to stop contacting me, you may only do so to (1) advise me that your further efforts are being terminated, (2) notify me that you may invoke specified remedies that you normally invoke or (3) where applicable, to notify me that you intend to invoke a specified remedy.

Until advised otherwise, you should consider this debt to be disputed.

Furthermore, I have been the victim of abusive collection practices by agents of your company. Specifically:

 

 

 

Such practices violate Federal law and place you in jeopardy of legal liability.

I also wish to inform you that my sole source of income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)/ Social Security. As a result, my income is exempt from garnishment for this type of debt. I have no non-exempt assets.

 

Thank you for your cooperation.

Dated:                                            

Sincerely,                              

____________________________(print name)

                                                        (street address)               

                                                        (city, state & zip)

 

 

 

0200EN

This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities.  It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. 
This information is current as of October 2014.

© 2014 Northwest Justice Project -- 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)