Can You Go to the Police When Someone Owes You Money?

A police member talking on the phone about someone who owes someone else money.

It’s frustrating and disheartening when someone owes you money — whether it’s a friend, a relative, or a business. But what can you do about it? You don’t have to just give up and cut your losses. Below, we explain the many options you have to recover money that someone owes you.

Can You Go to the Police If Someone Owes You Money?

The quick answer is no, you can’t go to the police if someone owes you money. If you call the police non-emergency number, the police will likely advise you that it’s a civil matter and there’s nothing they can do about it. We called several police stations and researched police department policies online to verify this information. Unless there’s a risk of violence or public disruption associated with your personal debt, the police will not get involved.

You should never call 911 or an emergency police number to complain about civil matters such as a debt. You should only call 911 for situations where immediate action is required, including:

  • Something that involves an immediate threat to a person or property, such as a fire, medical emergency, car accident, attacks, or screams
  • Serious illegal activity in progress, such as breaking and entering, fights, or impaired drivers on the road
  • Serious illegal activity that has just occurred, such as assault or robbery
  • Suspicious circumstances that point to potentially imminent illegal activity, such as a prowler or vandalism in progress

Other Options for Collecting Money That Someone Owes You

While the police can’t help, you do still have options for collecting personal or business debts. These range from simply asking for the money to hiring an attorney. Keep in mind that it’s far easier to collect money that someone owes you when you have a paper trail. Legal contracts are the most effective way to ensure you’ll get your money back. However, even simpler records such as an IOU or a clear record of the money can help increase your chances of collecting.

Here are some steps you may be able to take to get money that you’re owed.

Politely Request the Money

Start small and give people the benefit of the doubt. If a friend or relative owes you money, sometimes a polite phone call to remind them that they borrowed money from you is enough. The debt may have simply slipped their minds.

A phone call can also work if a business owes you money, such as a missing refund or payment for a side job you’ve done. In many cases, an employee of the business can either track down what happened or connect you to someone who can.

Formally Request the Money

If politely asking doesn’t work, you can formally request the money that you’re owed. A more formal notification is often an effective way to show the other party that you’re serious about collecting the debt.

The best thing to do is mail a certified letter to the person who owes you money. It’s better to send certified mail rather than registered mail because certified mail arrives faster. Be sure to ask for Certified Mail with Return Receipt, which requires the recipient to sign for the letter. This way, you can prove that the person received your letter if you must take the debt collection process further.

According to current United States Post Office (USPS) rates, sending a certified letter ($3.35) with Return Receipt ($2.75) will cost $6.10. If you request an electronic Return Receipt via email instead of a standard Return Receipt, it will cost you just $1.45, for a total of $4.80. If someone owes you $10, this option may be more of a hassle than it’s worth. However, if you’re trying to get a substantial amount of money back, a trip to the post office for a certified letter is a worthwhile investment.

Take Them to Small Claims Court

If a person or business owes you money, you can file a case in small claims court to try to collect some of the money. For most debts, this option is preferable to a full-blown lawsuit because it is cheaper and requires less time.

The maximum you can sue for in small claims court depends on the specific laws in your state. Small claims court caps range from about $2,500 in a few states to $25,000 in Tennessee.

You do not need a lawyer to file a case in small claims court. To file a case, just follow these steps:

  1. Call or visit your local courthouse to find out where you should apply.
  2. Pay a small filing fee. This will vary depending on the amount you’re looking to recover but it’s typically less than $100. You also may be able to recover the filing fee as part of the civil suit.
  3. Fill out your application. Clearly state how much you are owed, by whom, for what, and whether you have proof of the debt.
  4. The person who owes you money will be served papers informing them that you’re taking them to court. The papers will include the court date and location.
  5. Attend your court date and bring all possible evidence of the debt that you have. In addition to contracts and written statements, you can include Facebook posts, emails, and some texts as evidence to support your case.

Keep these things in mind regarding small claims court:

  • The defendant (the person who owes you money) may request to have the case moved to regular court, which would entail greater fees and the need to hire a lawyer.
  • You can be counter-sued, even in small claims court.
  • If you win the judgment, you may not get your money right away. If the person who owes you does not pay immediately or agree to a payment plan, you may need to get a court order, which involves having a sheriff or government official seize the defendant’s property and sell it to pay off the debt. This process can take a lot of time.

Hire a Mediator

If you and the other person or business involved can’t agree on whether money is owed or how much money is owed, it may be easier, less stressful, and less expensive to work with a mediator.

A mediator will work with you and the person or business who owes you money to help you reach a settlement without involving the courts. You can find mediation organizations or a legal professional such as an attorney or a judge to meet your mediation needs.

Most mediators charge a flat fee for the case, as well as an hourly fee for their time. If you can’t afford to pay much, here are some free or low-cost ways to work with a mediator:

  • Some states have non-profit mediation centers offering free or low-cost mediation for civil disputes. Find a list of non-profit mediation centers here.
  • Some law schools offer mediation clinics, also referred to as alternate dispute resolution (ADR), where students provide free mediation services. Find a list of law school ADR programs here.
  • If your case is not resolved in court (either small claims or a regular lawsuit), the judge may recommend mediation. In these cases, the mediation fees are covered by the court.

Hire an Attorney

The most expensive and complicated path to recovering money that a person or business owes you is to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit. If you’re only trying to get back a small amount of money, the costs of a lawsuit will very likely exceed any amount you’re able to collect. However, if someone owes you a substantial amount of money and you have proof of the debt, a lawsuit may be an option.

When you file a lawsuit, you’ll also have to pay court fees and attorney’s fees, which will vary widely depending on the details of your particular case. You may also have to pay additional costs for travel, time off work, and other potential complications. For these reasons, it’s best to consult an attorney directly to find out whether you have a case that can be proven in court, and how much it will cost you to do so.

Cut Your Losses and Move on

Sometimes, you may just have to give up on collecting money. The person who owes you money may not be able to pay you back or may simply stubbornly refuse to do so, regardless of the steps you take to recover your money. In some cases, you just might not have enough proof that the person owes you money to take legal action.

If you’ve reached the point of giving up, you might also consider talking to the person who owes you money about partial repayment or payment through other means, such as goods or services. In some cases, getting something back is better than nothing. Or you may simply decide it’s not worth the hassle to pursue.

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