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).
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
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
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
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.
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
Your name and address and, if available, the account
number on the statement received from the collection agency;
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.
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
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
to Claim Personal Property Exemptions and Debtors'
Rights in a Lawsuit.
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:
the collection agency threatens to tell your employer or
neighbors about the debt, or actually does tell them about
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).
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).
the debt collector communicates with the debtor or anyone
else in such a manner as to harass, intimidate, threaten, or
embarrass the debtor.
The debt collector communicates with the debtor or spouse
more than three times in a single week.
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
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.
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
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.
(To be sent within 30 days of receipt of letter from
collection agency if you dispute the debt)
Certified mail, return receipt requested
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.
(To be sent to the collection agency if you wish them to stop
writing and/or calling you)
Certified mail, return receipt requested
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.