Debt Collection Practices Are Leading to More Complaints

Lawsuits against debt collectors alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) are on the rise, with 1,928 court filings nationwide by mid-March. Of those filings, 462 occurred in the first two weeks of March alone, an upward trend compared with cases filed in previous periods.

Annual totals also bear out the trend. From the 2007 total of 3,813 FDCPA lawsuits, the number jumped to 5,188 in 2008 and 8,287 in 2009, according to Nearly 120,000 consumers filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year alleging FDCPA violations. The FTC says the debt collection industry, which comprises 6,500 collection agencies, generates more complaints than any other industry.

What Is Behind the Increasing Complaints of FDCPA Violations?

One problem may be that the FDCPA was put into place before the advent of cell phones, e-mail and auto dialers. Auto dialing has led to excessive contacts, but whether and how the FDCPA covers those contacts is unclear. Under §806 of the FDCPA, creditors may not cause the phone to ring repeatedly for the purpose of harassing debtors, nor may they place calls without meaningful disclosure of the callers' identities.

A debt collection abuse arising from technological change is finding and using debtors' cell phone numbers to contact them, in some cases imposing a call charge on the debtor. The use of overseas agents as debt collectors, unheard of when FDCPA became law, is also responsible for some of the harassment complaints.

However, many debtor complaints relate to violations of longstanding provisions of the FDCPA that are no different today than when they were enacted. Abusive language, threats, in particular threats of sending debtors to jail, and reputation smearing are among the practices consumers claim debt collectors use. Other practices consumers complain of include the attempted forced payment on time-barred debts, debts discharged in bankruptcy and debts not owed by the consumer contacted. All of these actions have been illegal since the FDCPA was enacted in 1977.

Many debt collectors have no knowledge of the original circumstances of the debt, including whether the underlying debt is legitimate. Many debt collectors buy accounts that have been written off by lenders for pennies on the dollar. The lenders are supposed to "scrub" their portfolios, removing disputed accounts, accounts belonging to deceased consumers and accounts discharged in bankruptcy, before selling the portfolio. If lenders fail to scrub these accounts, the result may be attempted collection on accounts not legally subject to collection.

Consumer advocacy groups say updated laws, tougher penalties for violations and stricter enforcement are needed to stem the growing tide of collection agency abuses.

If you have been subjected to harassing or questionable debt collection practices, contact an experienced attorney.