If you are old enough, think back to how you communicated with others back in 1977, the year that the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act was written, which is the primary law protecting consumers from abusive debt collectors. You called people using a landlines, wrote letters or met face to face. There was no Facebook, no cell phones, no caller ID, and no fax machines. In other words, from a communication technology perspective, 1977 was light years away from where we are today.
As the Government Accounting Office (GAO) points out in a new report to Congress on the debt collection industry, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Could Better Reflect the Evolving Debt Collection Marketplace and Use of Technology, the FDCPA is woefully out of date because it has not been amended to address how debt collectors are using these new technologies to communicate with consumers about their past due debts, even though in many instances, by using them debt collectors are violating the intent of the FDCPA.
The GAO’s recommendation to Congress that it better protect consumers by amending the FDCPA so that it reflects today’s modern means of communication could not come at a better time. Just consider, consumer credit card debt has skyrocketed over the past several years, the rate at which consumers are falling behind on this debt has been increasing, and complaints about debt collectors are on the rise, fueled in part by the fact that a growing number of consumers simply can’t afford to pay what they owe and so some debt collectors resort to illegal tactics to try to get at least some money out of them.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency charged with enforcing the FDCPA, it now receives more complaints about the debt collection industry than about any other industry, and it saw a 34% rise in those complaints between 2004 and 2008. Underscoring the problem the Better Business Bureau and the offices of many State Attorneys General have also seen significant increases in complaints against debt collectors.
Fair Debt Collection Laws Need to be Updated
The GAO report also examines changes in the debt collection marketplace and how they are affecting consumers’ FDCPA rights and recommends that the FDCPA be amended to reflect the realities of today’s debt collection industry. For example, the report points out that debt buying has become much more commonplace that it was when the law was written. Debt buying occurs when a debt collector either purchases past due debts from a creditor or purchases them from another debt collector; sometimes those debts are bought and sold repeatedly. The problem this has created is that the buyers of the debts don’t always have adequate information about the debts when they attempt to collect them and as a result, they are more apt to try to collect the wrong amount of a debt or to contact the wrong person for payment, among other problems. The report notes that this tends to be a bigger problem the farther away from the original creditor a debt has moved. In other words, the buyers of debts that have been bought and sold more than once already are more apt to have inadequate or erroneous information about those debts. The issue of inadequate information is important because there are many instances of consumers whose lives have been made miserable by debt collectors demanding that they pay debts that did not belong to them or that they pay more than what they actually owed on a debt and some of these consumers have even been sued over the debts.
Here’s another reason why the issue of inadequate information is important. If a debt collector contacts you, you have the right to ask the collector to provide you with written verification of the debt. However, many debt collectors who buy debts claim that they do not have the information they need, like a consumer’s account billing statements, to provide the legally required written verification. Also, complicating matters, there is confusion about exactly what constitutes written verification because the FDCPA as currently written does not provide specific guidelines on this matter.
The GAO report makes another important recommendation. It advises Congress to give the FTC rule making authoring over the FDCPA. Rule making authority will allow the Commission to more effectively respond to an evolving marketplace and changes in technology. Makes perfect sense to me especially given that the FTC has this authority in regards to all of the other consumer protection laws it enforces and without rule making authority, the Commission is hampered in its ability to regulate the practices of debt collectors and protect consumers.
One last comment. The GAO report focuses largely on the debt collection practices of the very biggest credit card companies—all of which are federally supervised banks. However, it expresses concern about the debt collection practices of smaller, high-fee, sub-prime credit card issuers, which are often local banks. The problem according to the report is that these other card issues have been especially aggressive in their efforts to collect past due debt. I hope that the GAO takes a hard look next at this sector of the credit card industry.