On a regular basis, I receive calls from panicked clients asking the same question: “can I go to jail for failing to pay my debt?” The answer is emphatically “no”. In fact, not only can you not go to jail for failing to pay your debt, you may sue a debt collector or creditor for even threatening such action.
Under federal and Florida law, a debt collector cannot threaten arrest or imprisonment for failure to pay your debt. See 15 U.S.C. §1692e(4); Fla. Stat. 559.72(9). Many times, debt collectors and creditors tip-toe a fine line when discussing this issue over the phone. For example, a common tactic is for them to imply or insinuate arrest or jail time. They do this by stating something like “we will have the sheriff show up to your house” or something similar to this effect. In essence, they are trying to scare you into believing the sheriff is coming to arrest you. In reality, they are simply attempting to have you served with a civil lawsuit. Thus, it is very important to document what exactly is said over the phone. In my experience, it is very rare for a legitimate debt collector to expressly state a consumer will go to jail or be arrested for failing to pay a debt. In contrast, as discussed in a previous blog, this is a favorite tactic of illegitimate debt collectors. So- what happens if a legitimate debt collector or creditor actually threatens to have you arrested?
Under both federal and Florida law, if a debt collector or creditor threatens jail time for failure to pay a debt, a consumer is entitled to up to $1,000 in statutory damages, actual damages, and reasonable attorney’s fees. In a recent case I just settled, my client was told if she failed to show up to court for failure to pay a debt, she would be “held in contempt of court”. I argued this was simply another way of threatening my client with jail time. As a result, my client obtained a lucrative settlement.
What To Do If This Happens To You
Immediately write down exactly what was said to you. Take down the number you were called from, the name of the company, and the time of the call. If you can, screenshot the call on your cell phone so you have proof that the called occurred. After documenting the call, contact a consumer protection attorney. The attorney will need to investigate the company to see if they are legitimate. In order for an attorney to investigate the company, they need at a minimum, the number that called you.
You don’t have to hire me, but make sure you hire a law firm that regularly practices consumer protection law. If you simply have a question, call or email me to discuss. I make myself available to not only clients but also anyone that wants to learn more about consumer protection laws. Feel free to email me at Jon@BerkMyer.com. I will review your potential case at no cost and answer any questions you may have.