Harassment: What to do about it?

If you have debt problems, it can be stressful when creditors or debt collectors contact you with reminders and demands for payment. But this can become a much bigger worry if you start to feel harassed by unreasonable, or even illegal, behaviour.

You don’t have to put up with harassment by creditors or debt collectors. By registering a complaint and taking action it can lead to individuals or companies receiving fines, having authorisation to trade revoked, or even result in you receiving compensation. You don’t deserve to be treated badly because you owe money, or to feel like you need to put up with it due to your situation.

The steps you need to take depend on the type of debt, and who might be harassing you. Creditors, debt collectors and bailiffs are allowed to take reasonable steps to recover debts, but if you believe they’ve gone beyond what might be allowed, then you should get expert advice.

If you want to avoid dealing with creditors as much as possible, then various debt solutions will either limit contact or restrict them from communicating with you. For example, a voluntary Debt Management Plan will reduce the amount of contact if your creditors agree to it, but an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) means they are legally required to direct all communication to the Insolvency Practitioner handling your IVA (this also applies to a Trust Deed in Scotland).

No matter how much money you owe, there are always ways you can resolve your financial problems and stop any harassment. Attempts to pressure you mainly happen because without court action, your creditors have no power to claim your house or assets. Only HM Revenue and Custom can involve bailiffs without going through a court process first. And you will be given opportunities to sort out debt repayments or insolvency in ways which allow you to maintain a basic standard of living.

When you’re starting to miss payments and slip into problem debts, there are ways you can immediately get some time and space to sort things out. Contacting your creditors and letting them know you’re putting a repayment plan in place will often secure you at least 30 days of ‘breathing space’ and our DebtBuffer letter templates will help you supply the right information.

You can also ask to be classed as vulnerable by creditors, debt collectors and bailiffs. There are various reasons why you would be eligible, including serious illness, mental health issues, pregnancy, or if you’ve suffered a recent bereavement or relationship breakup. And this would mean more consideration and care has to be applied when they are communicating with you or requesting payments.

What are creditors and debt collectors allowed to do?

Despite their name, debt collectors have no more rights or legal powers to chase you for payment than any other creditor. The only difference will be that they are likely to be more persistent in pursuing the money owed.

With unsecured debts, such as credit cards, store cards, personal loans, a creditor or debt collector is allowed to:

  • Contact you for the debt by phone or in writing, but this has to be kept to a reasonable amount and calls should be at a suitable time.
  • Send someone to your home. But this is unusual, as debt collectors are not bailiffs and have no right to enter your property or take goods. They have exactly the same power as a letter or phone call. And it needs to be at a reasonable time of day.
  • They can take further action on your debts, such as issuing default notices, applying for a County Court Judgment (CCJ) or in rare occasions, issue a statutory demand, which is the first step to making you bankrupt.
  • Creditors can sell your debt to a collection agency.

What is considered harassment by a creditor or debt collector?

There are a wide range of behaviours that can be classed as harassment. Rules governing creditors and debt collectors include the Financial Conduct Agency Consumer Credit sourcebook, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and the Consumer Credit Act.

Harassment includes any action which causes distress, humiliation or threatens you. Some actions are outlawed by industry rules and codes of practice, but others are actually illegal.

Examples of harassment include:

  • Contacting you at all hours, several days a day.
  • Embarrassing you publicly, including on social networking sites
  • Breaking data protection laws by speaking to family, friends, neighbours or employers without your permission.
  • Ignoring disputes over whether you owe the debt in question
  • Putting pressure on you to sell your home, take on more credit, or pay off larger amounts than you can realistically afford.
  • Threatening you verbally or physically
  • Using paperwork or business logos that appear official when they’re not, for example letters which look like court forms.
  • Falsely claiming to work for a court or as a bailiff
  • Implying legal action can be taken when it can’t, such as suggesting your home could be seized without a court order.
  • Misleading you to believe court action has been taken against you if it hasn’t
  • Implying that not paying the debt is a criminal offence, as this is not true for most debts.
  • Visiting you if they know you are ill or vulnerable, at work, or somewhere like a hospital
  • Asking you for payment or implying court action on a Statute Barred debt (when the lender has run out of time to use legal action to reclaim money, although the debt still exists)
  • Lending you money without a credit licence or “loan sharking”. This is illegal and you should seek specialist advice or report it.

Broadly speaking, you should look at whether a creditor or debt collector has breached guidelines or the law if they are being deceptive, misleading, or harassing you psychologically or physically.  And if you believe it’s the case, you should start collecting evidence of the behaviour, check professional debt advice, and consider starting a complaints procedure.

For more information on how to deal with debt collectors and what they can, and can’t do, take a look at our Debt Collectors: Essential Guide

In some cases, simply sending a letter to the creditor or debt collector can be enough to make the harassment stop. And we provide a letter template to make that task quick and easy. But even if you need to take further action, there is a range of help and support available to you.

One good piece of advice is to start keeping a record of what has been happening from the first time you feel you’re being treated unfairly. This can be as simple as noting down the dates, times, and details of any calls or visits.

What is considered harassment by bailiffs or enforcement agents?

Bailiffs or enforcement agents (Sheriff Officers in Scotland) have legal powers to collect a debt. They may be employed by councils or private companies, and can remove and sell your goods. They will also be involved in evictions, including mortgage possession actions.

It’s important to remember that bailiffs are usually only involved after a court action, unless it’s on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs. And you will still have a range of options available to you for solving your problem debts without having items taken away. To understand how to deal with bailiffs and all the implications when they are involved in recovering debts from you, read through our Bailiffs: Essential Guide.

Our guide also explains the different types of bailiffs, and who they will work for, which is important to know when you need to contact relevant organisations for a complaint.

When a bailiff or enforcement agent has harassed you and it is worth considering a complaint includes:

  • If they have not followed extra rules for people classed as vulnerable (e.g. disabled, seriously ill, with mental health problems, under 18 or over 65, having children or are pregnant, or in a stressful situation such as recent bereavement or unemployment)
  • If they have broken the rules for entering your home or lied about how they are allowed to enter
  • Threatened to take items, or actually taken them, that aren’t allowed
  • If they have pressured you into paying more than you can afford, and refused a reasonable repayment offer
  • If they keep contacting you for a debt that you don’t owe
  • Discriminated against you based on race, religion, sex, sexuality, age or disability
  • Used threats, intimidation or violence
  • Used offensive language
  • Called, texted or visited you repeatedly
  • Told neighbours about your debts or demanded information from them
  • Pressured you to pay someone else’s debt
  • Continued contacting or visiting you when you’ve already paid the debt.

Essentially bailiffs have to act reasonably and responsibly when enforcing a debt. They can’t threaten you or force their way in through windows. And even with a court order allowing them to gain entry, it will involve a locksmith rather than breaking down a door.

There are specific rules about items they are not allowed to take, including anything required for a basic standard of living, children’s belongings, and anything which isn’t owned by the person responsible for the debt.

How to stop harassing phone calls. What happens if you hang up?

It’s doubtful anyone has ever actually wanted to get a phone call from a creditor or debt collector. Important information has to be supplied in writing, so there’s no need to feel you have to keep answering the phone. Especially when increasing numbers of people tend to communicate mainly via text message, and can find phone calls stressful, especially when they occur unexpectedly, or on a daily basis.

If you provide a phone number as part of your details to obtain credit, then creditors are within their rights to use it to contact you, unless you’ve entered into a debt solution which specifically blocks them from communicating with you.

Be aware that phone calls are a common way for fake debt collector scams to try and trick you into paying for a debt which doesn’t exist, or has been statute barred. They may claim to be a bailiff or work under instruction of a court and threaten visits or arrest. Don’t give our any financial or personal information or discuss anything related to the debt. Instead, ask for a formal written notice, and do your own research.

When a genuine creditor calls, you may find they’re actually helpful and sympathetic. They may ask for information to find an affordable payment amount, or suggest paying with instalments. Don’t rush into anything without checking it’s affordable, and if you have agreed to Direct Debit payments on the phone and change your mind, you can cancel them at any time via your bank.

You can let the creditor or debt collector know if you’ve spoken to debt advisers and you’re in the process of setting up a solution or plan to do this soon.

And if the call starts making you upset, angry or feel pressured into making payments you can’t afford, you should end the call. It’s best to politely ask the caller to send a letter or email instead, before hanging up, and you won’t get into any trouble for doing this.

You can request creditors or debt collectors stop calling you, and if they continue to phone you can register a complaint.

In the meantime, you’re also within your rights to use caller ID to only answer the phone to numbers you know, and to block any calls from a withheld number.

Debt collector harassment at work

If you supply contact details when you take out credit, then that gives the right for creditors to use them to contact you. Potentially that does include while you’re at work, but there are rules about how you can be contacted, and when it can be prevented.

When you’re being contacted, the FCA Consumer Credit sourcebook states that a firm “must ensure that it does not act in a way likely to be publicly embarrassing to the customer; and a firm must take reasonable steps to ensure that third parties do not become aware that the customer is being pursued in respect of a debt”

This means you shouldn’t have messages left which reveal any money problems, or have messages passed via your colleagues. Especially if the name of the creditor or debt collection agency will make it obvious.

Speaking to your employer about your debts is a breach of data laws, as is visiting your place of employment unless you’ve given permission for them to do so.

Contacting the creditor or debt collector to explain that you either dispute the debt or you’re getting debt advice, and explaining your preferred method of communication should stop them hassling you at work. If not, it’s time to begin a complaints procedure.

Being harassed for debts owed by someone else

You are not liable for any debts owed by someone who lived at your address in the past, or anyone you share an address with, whether it’s family or friends. You are only responsible for debts in your name, in joint names with you and someone else, or if you have signed as a guarantor for someone’s borrowing.

For any letters, you can write ‘not known at this address’ on the envelope and put it into a post box without a stamp for the Post Office should return it to the sender. Any phone calls should stop once you’ve explained the situation and asked them to cease contact by telephone.

If this doesn’t work, you can contact or make a complaint to the creditors in writing. You’re not legally obliged to provide any proof.

If a letter looks like it’s from a County Court or bailiff you should call them immediately to inform them the person no longer lives there. You’re not legally obliged to provide proof but offering to send a photocopy of your council tax bill can help to resolve things more quickly.

If a bailiff (or sheriff officer in Scotland) visits to take control of goods for debts owed by someone else, do not let them in. You can communicate via the letterbox or an upstairs window, and show a council tax bill against a window for them to see.

Harassment over debts for someone deceased

When someone has died, the money and assets they left behind will be used to settle any debts, and the remainder will usually be written off.

You’re not liable for their debts if you’re administering their estate. The only time you may be responsible for outstanding amounts if any of their debts were in joint names with you. If that isn’t the case, you should be able to stop any contact by sending a copy of the deceased’s death certificate to the creditor.

Can a debt collector chase old statute barred debts, and ‘restart the clock’?

If a creditor doesn’t take action to recover a debt, it will become ‘statute barred’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, similar to a statute of limitations on legal proceedings. This means that although the debt will still technically exist, it’s essentially written off as the law prohibits the creditor from getting a court judgement or order to recover it (although they may still be able to take over action depending on the type of debt).

For most debts, the limitation period is six years. Income tax, VAT and Capital Gains Tax debts to HM Revenue and Customs don’t have a limitation period. Mortgages and personal injury claims have different limitation periods.

In Scotland debts will generally become prescribed after five years, and it will legally cease to exist. Again, there are exceptions including debts to HMRC, along with council tax, some DWP benefit overpayments and mortgages.

The limitation period will begin from whichever is most recent from the last time you wrote to the creditor acknowledging the debt, the last time you made a payment, or the earliest date the creditor could have started court action.

When your debts are statute-barred or prescribed and they are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, you can tell creditors the limitation period has passed and you don’t intend to pay the debt, and they should stop contacting you.

If the creditor or debt collector isn’t regulated by the FCA, they could continue to contact you for payment, but they won’t be able to take further action unless it’s on debts which don’t need to go to court, such as on behalf of HMRC tax credit overpayments, or DWP benefit overpayments.

Debt collectors may try to pressure you into making payments on old debts. If you’re sure they are statute-barred, you can write to them to explain you believe this is the case, won’t be making any payments and ask them to send proof if the debt is still owed.

Definitely don’t make any payments on the basis of phone calls, and make sure you check with a professional debt adviser on the specifics of your debts as the regulations around statute barred debts can be complicated.

Being harassed for old debt after bankruptcy

When you are discharged from bankruptcy, any debts which were included will be written off. So, you won’t have to pay them in the future. Some types of debt which aren’t covered by bankruptcy include court fines, maintenance payments and child support, student loans from the Student Loans Company and secured loans. But you should be aware of these as you’ll have needed to keep paying them during the bankruptcy period.

If you forgot or didn’t know about a debt when you applied for bankruptcy, and it was a type which was able to be included, then it’s covered even if you discover it after being discharged.

You may find yourself contacted by debt collectors after bankruptcy on the phone, or with a letter which may be designed to resemble an official court document. If this is for any debt included in the bankruptcy, you can reply saying that you went bankrupt, and giving the date and court details along with your bankruptcy reference number. And confirming you won’t be making payment arrangements.

If you have any concerns at all, you can speak to a specialist debt charity or adviser who can check the debt would have been covered and you are no longer responsible for it.

How to prepare before complaining about debt harassment

Before sending your complaint, there are a few simple steps to take which will ensure a better chance of resolving your debt harassment at the earliest opportunity.

First, you’ll need to check who is actually collecting the debt. It may be the original creditor, a debt collector acting on their behalf or a debt collection agency which has bought your debt. Or it could be a bailiff (or Sheriff Officer in Scotland).

You should also collect as much evidence as possible. Make a note of the number of visits or phone calls with dates, times, who you spoke to, and what was said to you. You should also ensure you have any letters of documents that you’ve received, and you could also get witness statements from other people who live with you, or neighbours.

It’s always a good idea to get some free debt advice from charities and organisations who have experience helping people harassed over their debts. And some will be able to share information with official bodies to escalate matters. For example, the Citizens Advice Bureau will pass on information to Trading Standards and other trust customer protection organisations.

How to complain to creditors or debt collectors

The first step will be registering a complaint with the creditor harassing you. This includes if a debt collection agency is hassling you whilst working on their behalf. This could mean the creditor also tackles the harassment issue, especially if you’re not the only complainant and they want to avoid any negative publicity that could arise.

Your complaint should include details of how you wish to be contacted in future, and ask them to confirm this in writing.

It should also include the fact that harassment is a criminal offence and you can take further action if they don’t stop.

Make sure you send letters by recorded delivery, and keep copies so you have a record of your complaint.

To make it easier for you, we’ve provided a harassment complaint letter which will help you include all the relevant information in a way which will hopefully help end your problems quickly and effectively.

After they receive your complaint, the creditor has three business days to respond informally, whether that’s by phone or email, as their final written response may take longer. They will also have to report your complaint to the Financial Conduct Authority.

Complaining to a trade association or professional body

If your initial complaint to the creditor or debt collector doesn’t solve the problem, you can check if they are members of trade associations or professional bodies. Examples include The Finance and Leasing Association, the Credit Services Association or the Consumer Credit Trade Association.

Many of these organisations may have a member directory or register which you can check, or you can see if trade association or professional body logos are displayed by the creditor or debt collection agency on their paperwork or website.

If your creditor is a bank, building society of credit card company they may belong to the Standards of Lending Practice, so after complaining to them directly, unresolved issues can be reported to the Financial Ombudsman Service, informing them a debt collector or creditor has broken the terms of the Standards of Lending Practice.

Complaining about a solicitor

If a solicitor has harassed you on behalf of one of your creditors, and you have already tried making a complaint to the firm involved, you will need to check where the solicitor is registered.

Harassment will be considered professional misconduct. If they’re registered in England or Wales, complaints should go to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. For solicitors in Scotland, you should use the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. And if they are registered in Northern Ireland, it will be the Law Society.

If you wish to get Trading Standards involved

If you wish to complain about a local company, you won’t be able to contact Trading Standards directly. Instead, you should contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Service.

They’ll help you to go through all the relevant information and be able to advise on your harassment problems. And they’ll also share the information with your local Trading Standards Office which will then decide whether to investigate an office.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)

The FCA doesn’t pursue cases on behalf of individuals. But if they have complaints about companies, the authorisation to trade can be revoked, or fines can be issued.

They can even take action against unauthorised firms, including requesting their websites are taken offline. Along with prohibiting individuals from working in regulated activities, applying to courts for injunctions or insolvency orders, or bringing criminal prosecutions.

You can also check their website for unauthorised firms, here if you’re contacted by a suspicious company.

Making a complaint about bailiffs

You should make your complaint to the bailiffs, and also to the creditor responsible for the debt. For example, your local council for council tax arrears, or parking tickets, the relevant court for fines or CCJs, HMRC for income tax, VAT or National Insurance, or either the Child Support Agency or Child Maintenance Service for child support.

Until your creditor has dealt with your complaint, they shouldn’t visit you or take any other action against you. If you receive more letters or visits, you should contact the bailiff company and tell them you’re waiting for a complaint to be dealt with.

If you can’t find details of the complaints process on the bailiff’s website, or they won’t explain how to complain in-person if they’ve visited, you should add that to your complaint as a breach of the national standards which they should be following.

When you’ve received a response from the bailiff company, or if they haven’t replied within 28 days, if you’re not satisfied, you can then complain to the relevant trade body. This would be the Civil Enforcement Association for court fines or child support, or if it’s regarding a high court enforcement officer, you’ll need to email the High Court Enforcement Officers’ Association via complaints@hceoa.org.uk.

Some creditors will also have an ombudsman

  • Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman – debts owed to your council
  • Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman – debts to a magistrate’s court, HMRC or DWP
  • The energy ombudsman – bailiffs sent by an energy company
  • The communications ombudsman – bailiffs sent by an internet or telephone company

The final level of complaints against a bailiff would be to apply to court for their certificate being taken away. This would stop them being able to work as a bailiff, so they won’t be able to contact you, and you won’t have to pay their fees. Obviously, court action is a significant step, so it’s vital to get expert advice and help before taking that step.

Harassment from loan sharks and illegal money lending

If you’re struggling to pay debts and have bad credit, you may have ended up borrowing money from lenders who aren’t authorised by the FCA. Known as loan sharks, they will charge extremely high rates of interest, threatening you physically if you can’t pay.

By lending you money, they’re the ones who have broken the law, not you. And you can’t be legally forced to pay it back. So, you should seek specialist advice straight away to get yourself out of any danger as soon as possible.

One option is to report them anonymously to the Illegal Money Lending Team, who can also offer you advice, including legitimate debt and welfare support. You can also speak to debt charities and support organisations for advice.

Taking your first steps to ending debt harassment

If you’ve been dealing with problem debts and had creditors chasing you for repayments, it can feel like you don’t have any way to stick up for yourself. You might even feel like you deserve to put up with creditors, debt collectors or bailiffs harassing you for not keeping up with your financial obligations.

No-one deserves to be treated unreasonably due to their financial situation, or be faced with harassment or threats.

And you’re not alone. There is help and support available, including our DebtBuffer harassment complaint letter template to help you contact creditors, to specialist debt organisations and charities who have dealt with many cases of unreasonable behaviour.

Even creditors won’t want to be associated with harassment or illegal behaviour carried out by debt collectors working on their behalf, especially if you’re a vulnerable person and it could result in negative publicity alongside action by trade bodies, an ombudsman, or the FCA.

Not only can you stop feeling harassed, but you could even end up being awarded compensation in some cases.

If the complaints procedure doesn’t work for any reason, or you’d rather just avoid dealing with your creditors altogether, then there are a number of debt solutions which can limit contact voluntarily (such as a DMP), or force all communication to go through an insolvency practitioner, including an IVA, bankruptcy, or a Trust Deed or Sequestration in Scotland.