Pro Tip: Always consult an attorney if you have specific legal questions or better want to understand your legal rights. This article is intended to provide general information and should not be relied on in place of speaking with an attorney.
Once you’re facing credit card debt, it can be incredibly challenging to repay what you owe. Struggling with debt is stressful on its own, but if you’re also dealing with constant collections calls, the situation becomes that much more anxiety-inducing.
During one of these calls, you may have had a collector imply or state outright that you’ll be arrested if you fail to make payments on the debt you owe.
It’s an awful experience that most people don’t take lightly, especially when dealing with credit card debt for the first time. Being threatened with jail time or hearing others discuss the possibility of being arrested for unpaid debts isn’t something you’re experiencing alone by any means.
But is there any truth to it? Can you really go to jail for credit card debt that you’re not able to pay back?
In this article, we’ll go over some of your more common options in relation to credit card balances and other debts. We’ll also cover general actions that debt collectors potentially can and can’t take in an attempt to collect on a debt.
Read on to learn about the steps you can take if you’re dealing with credit card debt.
Can Credit Card Debt Lead to Jail Time?
Generally speaking, no, you cannot be sent to jail solely for credit card debt. While debtor’s prisons existed as recently as the 19th century, they’ve since become federally outlawed. So, regardless of how much credit card debt you owe, you cannot be jailed simply for having outstanding credit card debt.
This does not mean that creditors are powerless when it comes to collecting a debt, though. There are still a couple of avenues that credit card companies and collections agencies can take in order to recover some of the funds they’re owed.
We’ll cover them in the next section.
Possible Consequences of Credit Card Debt
One of the most noticeable consequences of credit card debt is the drop in your credit score that occurs when an account is sent to collections. Additionally, if you apply for another credit card in the future, you may find that the terms available to you come with a high-interest rate.
Another consequence you’ll most likely deal with when you incur credit card debt is collections attempts. Creditors or collections agencies are typically allowed to contact borrowers either by phone or mail in order to attempt to collect on a debt. There are rules surrounding how and when these attempts can be made, which are in place to prevent harassment of the individual being contacted.
Rules for Collections Calls
Credit card debt collectors are only allowed to call an individual’s personal phone number. They are not allowed to call a borrower at their place of business. They are only allowed to make contact attempts during regular business hours as well (not before 8:00 AM or after 9:00 PM), and the number of calls cannot be excessive.
Furthermore, collectors are not permitted to harass or threaten the individuals they’re contacting. They cannot threaten you with jail for not paying credit card debt. They cannot threaten you with harm or threaten to publicly shame you. According to the FDCPA, they also cannot claim to work for a government agency or try forcing you to pay back a debt that isn’t in your name.
If you experience any of the actions mentioned above, you can and should file a report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Keep in mind, these rules apply to collections agencies working with credit card debt. Private debt collectors are not bound by the same rules, so if you’re dealing with debt associated with a retail store card or something of the like, private collectors don’t have to follow the same rules. However, it’s still a crime to threaten an individual with harm, lie about working for a government agency, or harass an individual in his or her home. Individuals facing threats of harm or clear harassment can still file a report against the agent or company responsible.
In some cases, a creditor or collections agency may file a civil lawsuit against you in an attempt to collect some of the unpaid debt you owe. When these cases proceed, a judge may force you to pay the debt back through installments or order wage garnishment from your paychecks in order to repay the debt. While you won’t go to jail for credit card debt in general, failure to adhere to the ruling may place you in contempt of court. If this occurs, you may be fined, jailed for no more than 25 days, or both.
What To Do with Collection Attempts
If you’re facing significant credit card debt and you’re receiving collections calls, there are a few things you can do.
You might attempt to make payment arrangements with the collector. Even if you can’t pay the entire debt in a single payment, some collectors are willing to accept partial payments in a schedule. For example, if you’re being asked to pay $2,000 to a collections agency, you might be able to set up a payment plan in which you repay $200 every two weeks.
Other times, creditors are willing to settle for a lower balance if you’re able to make a lump-sum payment.
If you’re unable to repay the debt, or the collector is unwilling to accept anything other than a single payment in full, you have the right to demand, in writing, that the collector stops contacting you altogether. This doesn’t remove the debt, but it will put a stop to the calls you’re receiving.
If You’re Being Sued
If you receive a lawsuit notice, it’s important to take the notice seriously, and contact an attorney immediately. You don’t want to ignore the fact that you’re involved in a lawsuit, nor do you want to skip attending a hearing in court. Doing so will only result in your debt collectors winning by default. Skipping court may also result in you being held in contempt of court.
Speak with an attorney, if possible, so that you can formulate a response. Some attorneys work on a sliding scale when it comes to the fees they collect for their services, so if you can, have a lawyer represent you. If you work with a lawyer, he or she can ensure that you’re not taken advantage of in court. In some situations, a lawyer can negotiate a lower debt balance for you to repay, or even have the case thrown out entirely.
If hiring a lawyer is not an option for you, do your best to respond to the lawsuit notice, attend your court hearing, and discuss your case as calmly and respectfully as possible. Judges are far more likely to work with an individual who makes an attempt to participate in court matters than an individual who ignores the case entirely.
Other Debt Types That Don’t Lead to Jail
In addition to credit card debt, you won’t be arrested or sent to jail for simply having debts to your name when it comes to any type of civil debt. Civil debt includes the following:
- Student Loan Debt
- Personal Loan Debt
- Medical Bills
Each of these debts may lead to a civil lawsuit and/or wage garnishment, but unless you’re held in contempt of court, you cannot be arrested for having unpaid debts.
Types of Debt That CAN Lead to Jail Time
While you cannot be arrested for credit card debt, there are some forms of debt that can result in jail time. Tax debt and child support debt are two of the most common forms of debt that can lead to serving time in jail.
However, for unpaid taxes to result in jail time, the individual involved must be charged and convicted of a crime, such as committing tax fraud or tax evasion. Filing taxes but being unable to pay your tax obligations won’t land you in jail on its own.
For unpaid child support, jail time is a possibility. When an individual deliberately attempts to avoid paying child support in full or refuses to pay child support at all, he or she might face between six months and two years behind bars. Circumstances play a role in the likelihood of being incarcerated, however, and in some cases, child support adjustments can be made instead of jailing the individual who owes back child support payments.
Now that we’ve covered the legal steps that debt collectors can take when it comes to collecting civil debt repayments, you’ve hopefully gained new and valuable information that will help your situation.
Remember, if possible, do your best to pay at least some fraction of your credit card debt to prevent the account from being sent to a collections agency. Try to make payment arrangements, settle for a lower debt, or explore your legal options if you’re being hounded with collections calls.
If you’re being sued, work with a lawyer and be sure to attend the hearing scheduled. Follow the court order that’s issued and even if it takes a significant length of time to repay your debt, do so in a way that puts you on the right side of the law. This way, there’s no possibility of being jailed for anything in relation to your credit card debt.