Washington People dread getting calls from bill collectors. And it’s not always because they can’t pay. It can be a degrading experience, especially with third-party collectors who are overly aggressive, even threatening.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office calls for major reform to the legislation that covers how companies collect old debt from consumers.
The reform can’t come soon enough. Debt defaults are at the highest rate in 18 years. About 6.6 percent of credit cardholders were 30 days or more past due in the first quarter of 2009. In 2008, credit issuers had more than $23 billion in unsecured debt that was from 30 to 180 days delinquent.
Many scrupulous debt collectors work with borrowers to get them to repay what they owe. But bottom-feeders in the industry will, by any means necessary, harass and intimidate consumers to pay up on accounts for which the collectors have paid pennies on the dollar.
It’s the dreadful players and their often illegal practices that was the subject of the GAO report on the effectiveness of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, enacted in 1977.
The law dictates how third-party debt-collection companies can communicate with debtors. It prohibits the companies from using unfair, abusive or deceptive debt collection practices. The FDCPA does not apply to creditors collecting on their accounts.
The FTC reports it receives more complaints about debt collectors than it does from any other industry. Among the more common complaints are excessive telephone calls, collectors misrepresenting the amount or legal status of a debt, and the addition of unauthorized fees and interest to accounts.
People also complain that collectors try to get them to pay on debts that have been discharged in bankruptcy, which is against the law.
Last year the FTC said it won the largest civil penalty ever — $2.25 million — in a case in which a company physically threatened people and made unauthorized withdrawals from consumer bank accounts.
With a surge in companies trying to collect past-due debts, it’s vital that federal (and state) laws are adequate to protect borrowers from dishonest debt collectors.
The FTC has begun investigating what changes are needed. Although some sections of the FDCPA have been amended, it hasn’t been substantially revised since its enactment 32 years ago.
On Dec. 4 in Washington, the agency is scheduled to conduct the third in a series of roundtable discussions examining the treatment of consumers by debt collectors. The meeting is open to the public and can also be viewed live via a Web cast. For information about the roundtable, go to ftc.gov and search for “Debt Collection: Protecting Consumers.”
In February, the FTC issued its own report recommending that the regulations covering debt collection be improved. Chief among the concerns for the FTC and GAO is the way debts are verified as old accounts are passed around.
When consumers become seriously delinquent, their original creditors may give up trying to collect. The creditors may then sell the debt as a way to make something on the accounts.
The accounts can then be resold so many times that it becomes hard to verify that the debt actually belongs to the person the collectors say it does, or that it was discharged in a bankruptcy case.
It’s time to rectify this gaping loophole that should have been fixed long ago.