The Federal Trade Commission reported that it receives more complaints about debt collection than any other single industry.
The agency received 140,036 complaints last year about debt collection, up from 119,609 complaints in 2009, the FTC said Monday in an annual report on the debt collection industry. The top three categories that consumers complained about were repeated and continuous calls from debt collectors; collectors who misrepresented the character, amount, or status of the debt (including demanding a larger payment than is permitted by law); and collectors who failed to send consumers a written notice about the debt and their rights, which they are required to do under federal statutes.
The FTC has been conducting an industry-wide investigation of the debt buying industry; and developing enforcement policy on collecting the debts of deceased persons. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will also have the power to enforce complaints against debt collection agencies.
The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act is supposed to prevent many of these abuses, but the FTC report shows that the current laws are failing to address many of the most rampant abuses.
One of the main problems is that the debt collection agencies buy and sell consumer debt and increasingly file lawsuits against consumers over the debt, even when they don’t have proof to back up their claims. In some cases, according to a recent report by Consumers Union and the East Bay Community Law Center, debt collectors are suing consumers for invalid debts, including debts that have already been paid. They have urged state and federal regulators to enact a number of reforms, including:
End robo-signing and attempts to collect without proper documentation: Debt collectors should be required to document that they are attempting to collect from the right person, for the right amount, and on a debt that they can lawfully recover.
Establish a sell by date for all debt: It should be illegal to sell or attempt to collect debt that is more than seven years old, which is too old to be reported on a credit report under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Require debt collectors to provide more information to consumers: All debt collectors, including debt buyers, should be required to identify the name of the original creditor and to provide an itemized record of the total principal, interest, fees, and other charges that have been added to the debt, and to provide detailed records about the debt to consumers within five days after the first notification.
Require debt collectors to submit more detailed information when filing suit: Debt collectors should be required to submit basic information about the debt, including the name of the original creditor and an itemized record of the total principal, interest, fees, and other charges that have been added to the debt, when they sue over a debt, so that the consumer can see if it is his or her debt, and in the right amount.
Increase oversight to ensure consumers are properly notified of lawsuits: Courts should be required to provide supplemental notice of all filed debt collection lawsuits to debtors and default judgments should be prohibited if the notice is returned to the court as undeliverable.
A trade group representing the debt collection industry responded to the FTC report. “The recovery of rightfully owed consumer debt is an essential component of our nation’s economic engine,” said ACA International Interim CEO Ted Smith in a press release. “It’s no secret that the collection of debt is a challenging proposition. It’s the job of hundreds of thousands of professionals to carefully work with consumers under stressful circumstances to verify and help consumers resolve their personal responsibility to pay an outstanding debt.”
Accountants can work with their clients on the best ways to deal with consumer debt and advise them on how to handle the debt collection agencies as well. As the economy slowly recovers from the financial crisis, old debts are likely to be lingering for a long time.