The difference between a debt collector and a collection agent (and why this matters)
Under the law in BC, a debt collector is a person who is collecting or attempting to collect a debt. BC debt collection laws apply to any person or business that fits this description. It could be a retail business you bought furniture from, a cellphone company you signed a contract with, or a collection agency that has taken over your overdue credit card debt.
A collection agent, meanwhile, is a person or business that collects debt for other parties. A party who is owed money (a creditor) typically “sells” the debt to the collection agent. In exchange, the collection agent typically promises to give the creditor a portion of the debt the agent is able to recover.
Put another way, all collection agents are debt collectors, but not all debt collectors are collection agents.
For example, say you buy a car with financing from the car dealership. You fall behind in your payments. The car dealership decides to hire ABC collection agency to collect from you. Both the car dealership and ABC collection agency are debt collectors. Only ABC collection agency is a collection agent.
When collection agents get involved
A creditor might use a collection agent when:
- the creditor has exhausted its own efforts to collect,
- the amount due does not justify using more expensive means to collect, such as getting a lawyer involved, or
- maintaining goodwill with the debtor is not a priority.
Why this matters
Collection agents have no special legal powers to collect from a debtor. They are like any other creditor. One difference is that collection agents are known for using very aggressive tactics. Some contact debtors often and use intimidation to scare debtors into paying. Many of the laws we explain below are designed to protect debtors from these types of tactics.
As well, collection agents must be licensed by Consumer Protection BC. If a collection agent is treating you badly, Consumer Protection BC has more scope to penalize them. We explain this below, under "Deal with the problem".
Consumer Protection BC licenses collection agents in the province. Use the Consumer Protection BC licence search to see if an agent is properly licensed.
A debt collector can’t harass you
“A debt collector started calling my home a few weeks ago. They were calling 10+ times a day. I asked them to direct their calls to my lawyer, but they kept calling me at home. The other day, I found out they’ve started calling my family members. That was the last straw—I’ve complained to Consumer Protection BC.”
– Jeremy, Burnaby
Under the law in BC, a debt collector can’t communicate with a debtor in a way that amounts to harassment. Examples of harassment include:
- using threatening, profane or intimidating language
- exerting excessive or unreasonable pressure
- publishing or threatening to publish a debtor’s failure to pay
For example, a debt collector can’t phone your home every hour demanding payment. This would be exerting excessive or unreasonable pressure.
This rule also covers a member of the debtor’s family or household, a relative, neighbour, friend or acquaintance, or the debtor’s employer.
As well, under Canada’s criminal laws, a debt collector mustn’t:
- threaten to harm a debtor or their property
- abuse its authority to get money from a debtor
- convey false information with the intent to alarm a debtor
A debt collector can’t be deceptive. For example, they can’t send you letters that look like they come from the government when they don’t. That’s considered false information designed to scare you.
See the “Deal with the problem” section below for the steps to take if you’re being harassed by a debt collector.
If you’re the victim of serious harassment, consider seeking legal advice. One example of serious harassment is where a collector makes repeated abusive calls to your employer.
A debt collector must send you written notice before calling you
Under the law in BC, a debt collector can’t try to collect until they’ve sent the debtor written notice. This letter must include all of the following:
- The name of the original creditor.
- The name of the creditor to whom the debt is currently owed, if different from the original creditor.
- The amount of the debt on the date it was due.
- The amount of the debt currently owing.
- The collector’s identity, and its authority for collecting the debt.
However, a debt collector can call a debtor before sending the notice if the collector is only trying to find out the debtor’s home address or email.
A debt collector must wait five days after the written notice is sent (not received) before calling the debtor.
What time of day a debt collector can contact you
Under the law in BC, a debt collector must not communicate by telephone or in person with a debtor:
- from Monday to Saturday before 7 am or after 9 pm
- on a Sunday before 1 pm or after 5pm
- on a statutory holiday at any time
This rule also applies to:
- a member of the debtor's family or household
- a relative, neighbour, friend or acquaintance of the debtor
- the debtor's employer
- any guarantor of the debt
When a debt collector can contact you at work
Under the law in BC, a debt collector can only contact a debtor at work in one of the following situations:
- The collector doesn’t have the debtor’s home address, phone number or email, and is only trying to get that information.
- The debtor permits the collector to contact them at work.
- The collector has attempted to contact the debtor at home, by phone or by email, but has failed to connect. In this case, the collector must not make more than one verbal attempt to contact the debtor at work.
A debt collector is prohibited from harassing a debtor’s employer. For example, a collector can’t repeatedly call your boss to try to get you fired over an unpaid debt.
Just because a debt collector stops contacting you doesn’t mean you don’t owe the debt anymore. You’re legally required to pay all the debts you owe. See our guidance on your options for getting out of debt.
When a debt collector can contact your family or friends
Under the law in BC, a debt collector can only contact a debtor’s friends and family members to request the debtor’s home address, phone number or email. Two exceptions to this rule are when:
- the person being contacted has guaranteed the debt, and is being contacted about the guarantee
- the debtor has given permission to the collector to contact the person about the debt
It’s illegal for a debt collector to harass a debtor’s friends or family members. See above for a description of what amounts to harassment.
You can control how a debt collector communicates with you
Under the law in BC, a debtor can request that a debt collector communicate with them only in writing. The collector must contact a debtor only in writing where:
- the debtor has requested to be contacted only in writing, and
- the debtor has provided their mailing address.
Alternatively, a debtor can request that a debt collector communicate directly with the debtor’s lawyer. The collector must contact a debtor through the debtor’s lawyer where:
- the debtor has requested that the collector communicate only with the debtor’s lawyer, and
- the debtor has provided an address for the lawyer.
Consumer Protection BC provides printable forms that debtors can fill out and give to a debt collector:
- a printable form to request communication in writing
- a printable form to request communication through a lawyer
There is also an online form that you can use (you must know the debt collector’s email address).
If the debt is more than two years old
The law in BC creates a basic limitation period of two years for starting a legal action. A lawsuit cannot be brought more than two years after the “claim is discovered”. In the case of a debt, if a debtor hasn’t made a payment—or acknowledged that they owe a debt—in more than two years, the creditor may be barred from bringing legal action to collect.
Here’s an example. Say you owe the phone company $2,000 in unpaid phone bills. It’s been three years since you’ve made any payments. You haven’t heard anything from the phone company during that time about your debt. Now out of the blue a collection agent contacts you demanding payment.
In this case, you may be able to defend the claim arguing that the limitation period has expired. Don’t volunteer the information that you haven’t made any payments. By indicating that you owe the debt, you may be restarting the limitation period.
If you’re being asked to a pay a debt and you think the limitation period may have expired, seek legal advice right away.
If you dispute the debt
By disputing a debt, a debtor is saying they don’t owe the debt. A debtor might dispute a debt where:
- the debt was already paid
- it’s someone else’s debt
- the collector is asking for more than what’s owed
Under the law in BC, a collector must stop communicating with a debtor once the debtor has notified the collector and creditor that the debt is in dispute and that the debtor would like the creditor to take the matter to court.
To dispute a debt, you must contact the collector and the creditor in writing. Here is a printable form you can use to dispute a debt. There’s also an online form you can submit (you must know the collector’s email address).
Sometimes debt collectors are working with bad information. If a debt collector contacts you and you think they have the wrong person, notify them in writing. Here is a printable form you can use. There is also an online form you can submit (you must know the collector’s email address).
If you dispute a debt, you should let the credit reporting agencies know. Incorrect information on your credit report can make it more difficult for you to borrow money. A debt may still show on your credit report while you’re disputing it. See our guidance on fixing a mistake on your credit report.