The original creditor has the right to call you about the debt any time a contractual installment is late. If you are in arrears on your payments you can expect the internal collections department to call to see why you haven't brought the account up-to-date.
However, most major card companies will refrain from sending the account to outside collections (to avoid the cost to them) for at least three months, but more often, five or six months in arrears.
Common Non-Law, Legal Urban Myths
Your question brings up a phenomenon I see often in the consumer finance theater, "the common non-law."
I can’t tell you the number of times I have been told, "The creditor can't do anything if you make a payment every month on the debt." The rule is stated as if the amount is not really important so long as something is paid each and every month. This rule is nonsense and has no basis in law.
Another commonly held non-law is that if a defendant in a civil suit avoids service of process the plaintiff is totally stymied and cannot proceed. Again, this is nonsense.
Why are these misconceptions so commonly and widely held? I believe the first non-law grew out of the Great Depression when an Alabama lawyer began negotiating much reduced debt payments for his clients who had theretofore been assiduous in their debt payments, but could no longer pay those aggregate amounts each month. A private plan of repayment called for extremely reduced payments, and the creditor agreed not to seize property, garnish wages, and so on if the debtor made monthly payments. In very poor months the debtor could pay in the amount of his best effort, but he had to pay every month.
From the creditor's point of view, half the collection battle would be won if they could get debtors into a payment routine or, rather, rut. If creditors were not to be paid substantially in bad months, at least they could salvage some benefit from this repayment plan. After the plan was agreed to between the debtor and each creditor it could truly be said, "pay what you can — if you can't make the full payment, pay something each month and the creditor can't do anything to you."
These repayment plans spread throughout the country and became very popular. Instead of getting nothing, creditors were getting something. Years later this grass-roots semi-solution became the conceptual basis for Congress' amendments to the Bankruptcy Act when it introduced the unprecedented type of bankruptcy known as a Wage-Earner's Repayment Plan, or Chapter XIII (13) — with strong support from the creditors and bankers.
Collections Laws Today
So, we can start with the fact that creditors have a conditional right to contact you in the regular collections manner simply because the account is in arrears. But for other regulatory regimes, you will be contacted by an internal collector to pressure payment from you.
However other regulatory regimes exist at the federal and state levels. All regulatory schemes exist by governmental action, but none are private (that I know of) by, say, trade association rules or other private means. Most states do not have a comprehensive regulatory scheme, only a collection of prohibitions against collectors resulting from ad hoc abuses and the regulations passed in response to such abuses. These collector statutes usually came about when some especially egregious act by a rogue collector resulted in specific consumer injury, giving collection methods an exceedingly unfavorable press.
Other states, such as California, simply incorporated the federal statute into the state law in its entirety. California made one huge addition to federal law by providing that the restrictions on consumer contact apply equally to original creditors. The federal statute known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) applies only to third-party collectors, so it would not keep your creditors from contacting you. (See Collections Advice to learn more about the collections process.)
Recommended Course of Action
Contact a well-connected organization, the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA). This is an association of lawyers across the country who practice consumer protection law. NACA has developed a network that should provide a referral for you to an experienced attorney in your state who can speak with you and definitively answer any questions you might have regarding this debt.
Most initial consultations are provided free of charge. Specifically, you should ask the attorney if there are any laws or regulations in your state that could prevent collection activity in your situation, and if making small payments each month extends any degree of protection. A wide ranging discussion should help you plan ahead knowing all of your alternatives.
For more information about consumer debt, and the various options that may be able to help resolve it, I encourage you to visit the Bills.com debt help page.
I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.