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Are you being contacted by debt collection agencies?

This publication is written to help you understand debt collection practices and your rights when dealing with debt collectors. If you are being sued, or if there is already a judgment against you, see our publications Debtors' Rights in a Lawsuit or information packets on How to Answer a Lawsuit or How to Claim Personal Property Exemptions, available by calling 1-888-201-1014 or 1-888-201-9737 (TTY).

What is a collection agency?

Collection agencies are regulated by both the state and federal government. Both the State of Washington and the federal government have laws that protect debtors who are contacted by collection agencies. In Washington, these laws are called the "Collection Agency Act" (in RCW 19.16.100) and the "Consumer Protection Act" (in RCW 19.86.010)., The federal act's title is the "Fair Debt Collection Practices Act" (in 15 U.S.C. 1692). These laws can also be found at your local library.

Federal and state law defines 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. For 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 because collection of debts is not their main business. Attorneys who regularly collect consumer debt are also considered "debt collectors" and must comply with the federal law.

What if you don't think you owe the debt?

When a collection agency first contacts you in writing regarding a debt, it must provide you with a written notice containing certain things. If the collection agency first contacts you by telephone, you may wish to insist that they also communicate with you in writing. The first written communication from a collection agency must include:

  • The name and address of the collection agency;

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

  • The name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;

  • A statement that unless you dispute the debt within 30 days after you receive 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; and

  • 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 get verification of the debt and mail it to you.

  • Every communication from a collector must clearly disclose that the purpose of the communication is to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used 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 the debt. Once the collection agency receives 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 sends that proof to you. It is important to keep copies of the letter you send to the collection agency. Whenever possible, send letters to collection agencies by certified mail, return receipt requested. See sample letter "A," below.

Some examples of disputes of debts are: (1) you don't believe you owe the debt or the amount as stated; (2) you already paid the debt; (3) you had medical coupons to pay for a debt, and the creditor should have billed the state; (4) you were hospitalized, informed the hospital you couldn't pay for care, and the hospital should have considered payment under a charitable care policy; or (5) you believe collection of the debt is time barred (see below).

There are statutory time limitations within which a legal claim must be commenced or it is "barred". 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 commenced within 6 years; most claims based on oral contracts or accounts receivable must be commenced within 3 years.

How do I stop the collection agency from contacting me?

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

  • to advise you that it is stopping its effort to collect the debt; or

  • to advise you that the collection agency intends to take action, such as bringing a lawsuit against you.

This law applies whether you owe the debt or not. If you write such a letter to a collection agency, be sure it includes the following:

  • Your name and address and, if available, the account number on the statement received from the collection agency;

  • The date;

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

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

See sample letter "B." BE SURE TO KEEP A COPY OF THIS LETTER. Mail the original to the collection agency, with a copy to the original creditor.

THE LETTER MUST BE SENT TO THE COLLECTION AGENCY. 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 have the right to bring an action against the collection agency for money damages and lawyer fees. THIS WILL NOT STOP THE COLLECTION AGENCY FROM SUING YOU FOR THIS DEBT. IT ONLY STOPS CALLS AND LETTERS FROM THE COLLECTION AGENCY TO YOU.

Which property and income is protected from debt collection?

There are certain kinds of income and property that cannot be taken to collect a consumer debt. Income such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), GAU, private pensions, federal civil service pensions, Labor & Industries disability payments, and Unemployment Compensation cannot be taken to collect a consumer debt. Additionally, the greater of $154.50 per week or 75% of your net wages (gross pay minus taxes, Social Security, and other mandatory deductions) is exempt. THIS INCOME IS USUALLY NOT EXEMPT FROM GARNISHMENT FOR CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENTS OR TAXES.

If your income is exempt from garnishment, then you may wish to put the collection agency on notice to that fact. You could provide this information to the collection agency in writing, keeping a copy of the letter. For example, if your only income is Social Security, which is exempt from garnishment by federal law, then you might write the following: "My income consists only of Social Security, which is exempt from garnishment by federal law." You could also include this information with any of your other written correspondence to the agency, e.g., if you sent a "cease communication" letter. While this is not a defense to the underlying claim, it does provide the collection agency with knowledge that your only income is exempt from garnishment. If the collection agency successfully sues you and then garnishes your bank account containing exempt funds, then you may have a cause of action against the collection agency.

Property, such as $40,000 equity in your home, a car of limited value and personal belongings up to a certain monetary limit, cannot be taken to collect a debt.

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

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 that you are being unreasonably harassed or misled by a collection agency, you have the right to bring a legal action against the collection agency. Again, if you win the case, the law gives you the right to collect damages and lawyer fees. The following are examples of violations, this list is not exclusive:

  1. the collection agency threatens to tell your employer or neighbors about the debt, or actually does tell them about the debt.

  2. the collection agency calls at unreasonable hours ( 9:00 p.m. - 8:00 a.m.) is considered unreasonable under the federal law; 9:00 p.m. -7:30 a.m. is consider "harassment" under state law).

  3. the collection agency threatens to take action against you that it cannot legally take (for example, threatening to take money out of your Social Security check taking other exempt property, or threatening arrest, jail).

  4. the debt collector communicates with the debtor or anyone else in such a manner as to harass, intimidate, threaten, or embarrass the debtor.

  5. The debt collector communicates with the debtor or spouse more than three times in a single week.

  6. The debt collector communicates with the debtor through the use of notices that simulate the form of government documents, or the appearance of a telegraphic or emergency message.

  7. The debt collector is prohibited from soliciting a postdated check in order to threaten criminal prosecution. A postdated check may not be deposited by a collector before the date on the check. Additionally, a collector's acceptance of a postdated check violates the law unless it gave the consumer who worte the check 3 to 10 business days notice prior to depositing the check.

What steps may I take on my own?

Your success in an unfair debt collection practice claim often depends on the strength of your proof that a violation has occurred. You may wish to take some or all of the following steps:

  • Set up a place to keep all notes or letters from the collection agency. Keep all written material you receive from them, including the envelopes.

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

  • Make notes of the same information if you learn that the collection agency has contacted anyone other than you.

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


Sample Letter "A"

(To be sent within 30 days of receipt of letter from collection agency if you dispute the debt)


Certified mail, return receipt requested

Collections, Inc.
Any town, USA

Re: Jane Doe
Account Number __________________

Dear Sir or Madam:

On [ date ], I received a letter from you stating I owed $3,000 for medical debts with Fix It Hospital. I dispute that I owe this debt. I gave the hospital medical coupons. Please investigate this matter, and stop all efforts to collect this debt until you provide me with verification.




Sample Letter "B"

(To be sent to the collection agency if you wish them to stop writing and/or calling you)


Certified mail, return receipt requested

Collections, Inc.
Any town, USA


Dear Sir or Madam:

I am exercising my rights under the Fair Debt Collection Act. I am unable to pay this debt. (or "I can only pay $20.00 per month"). My only income is Social Security. I have no other property to use to pay this debt.

Please cease all communication with me.





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