Can I get rid of a debt if the debt collector violates the FDCPA?

A debt collector's FDCPA violation won't eliminate your liability for the underlying debt, but you can use the violation as a bargaining tool.

Question: I have a lot of credit card debt, but I’m pretty sure that one of the collectors that keeps calling me is violating the FDCPA since the calls are threatening and constant. Am I legally entitled to eliminate the debt if the collector violates the FDCPA?

Answer: No, a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) won’t eliminate your liability for the underlying debt. Under the FDCPA, you could file a lawsuit and, if you win the case, get money damages from the collector. Or you could also use the fact that the collector violated the law (and that you might file a lawsuit) as a bargaining tool to potentially reduce or get rid of the debt.

Understanding the FDCPA

The FDCPA is the main federal law that protects consumers from aggressive, abusive, unfair, or deceptive debt collectors. Under the FDCPA, it’s against the law for a debt collector to (among other things):

  • use threats of violence or harm
  • use profane language
  • tell you that you’re subject to arrest or imprisonment if you don’t pay your debt, or
  • call you repeatedly or at unreasonable hours. (Learn more about what debt collectors can and cannot do in Nolo’s article Illegal Debt Collection Practices.)

Violations of the FDCPA Won’t Eliminate Your Debt

When you incur a debt, you typically have a contractual obligation to repay it. Even if the debt collector breaks the law when trying to collect from you, you’re still responsible for paying the debt (unless it is time-barred or invalid for some other reason).

However, there are several things that you can do to improve your situation when a collector violates the FDCPA.

You can file a lawsuit against the debt collector. If a debt collector violates the FDCPA, you can sue that collector in state or federal court. You can even sue in small claims court. You must do this within one year from the date on which the violation occurred.

If you win the suit, the judge can require the collector to compensate you for any actual damages you suffered and award statutory damages of up to $1,000 (even if you can’t prove that you suffered actual damages), plus attorney's fees and costs. The court might also order the debt collector to stop engaging in certain collection activities. (Learn more about FDCPA violation remedies.)

You can use the violation as leverage to settle the debt. Debt collectors don’t like FDCPA lawsuits. Lawsuits are expensive to defend and often result in a judgment against the debt collector. For this reason, you may be able to convince the collector that it would be more cost effective to reduce (or eliminate) your debt, rather than to defend its actions in court.

You can report the violation. You can also:

The CFPB will forward your complaint to the collector and assist you in resolving your complaint. It will also share information about your complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which might choose to sue the debt collector to curtail its illegal debt collection practices. (Both the FTC and the CFPB enforce the FDCPA.)

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