Strong Rules Needed On Abusive Debt Collection Practices

Dave Johnson

I have been hounded for months by a company attempting to collect money for a gym membership that I canceled more than 15 years ago.

I was paying $150 a year for the membership before I correctly canceled the membership in writing. That “fitness center” was bought by a national chain that is known for hounding people for unpaid memberships, even if the membership has been canceled and nothing is actually owed.

In my case, they say I owe $2,500, but they will “settle” for less. And I can’t stop the calls.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is now proposing new rules that would put a stop to this kind of behavior and give consumers who have been victimized options for relief.

The CFPB is a new agency of the government that protects regular people from scams, frauds and abuses by the financial industry. The bureau came about as part of the minimal Dodd-Frank re-regulation of Wall Street and the rest of the financial industry following the 2008 crash.

One such often-abused financial scheme is debt collection. It’s an entire industry. Many people don’t know that there is a market where “debt buying” companies can actually buy “bundles of debt.” A company can actually purchase a “portfolio” of old debts like loans, installment car or store loans, even gym membership contracts that have been written off because a company has decided it is just too much trouble and expense to try to collect.

Instead of just giving up, though, the original lender “sells” the debt for pennies on the dollar to companies that specialize in doing nothing but collections. The collection company is all set up with “boiler rooms” full of people and phones, where they have refined techniques to hound the debtor, trying to collect what they can.

Often the collection companies don’t even verify that the debt is even legitimate.

Another scam is “fraudulent service” where the debt company falsely claims they served papers on a debtor, and when the debtor doesn’t show up in court they get a judgment allowing them to garnish paychecks and extend the legal period for collecting debt.

A January report titled “Unfair, Deceptive & Abusive: Debt Collectors Profit from Abusive Tactics,” by the Alliance for a Just Society, which is now the People’s Action Institute, looked at 75,000 debt-collection consumer complaints filed with the CFPB over two years. These complaints showed that debt collectors routinely harass people, even if they don’t even owe anything. And it is happening to a lot of people.

The People’s Action Institute report shows the need for the CFPB to crack down on the abuses by this industry. And that is exactly what the CFPB is now proposing to do. CNBC has the headline: “US consumer agency seeks to overhaul debt collection industry.”

The U.S. watchdog for consumer finances unveiled on Thursday a major proposal to toughen regulation of the multibillion-dollar debt collection industry, with a focus on keeping agencies from pushing people to pay debts they do not owe, informing borrowers of their rights and cutting down on calls to debtors.

“Today we are considering proposals that would drastically overhaul the debt collection market,” said Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray in a statement. “This is about bringing better accuracy and accountability to a market that desperately needs it.”

… Roughly 13 percent of consumers have a debt currently in third-party collection, with an average amount of $1,300, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows.

The New York Times’ Dealbook looks at some of the abuses, in” Debt Collectors’ Abuses Prompt Consumer Agency to Propose New Rules“:

Some 77 million people — roughly one in three adults with a credit report — have a delinquent debt in collections, according to an estimate by the Urban Institute.

… Susan Macharia, 39, an administrative worker who lives in Buena Park, Calif., said she was blindsided in January when she got a call from a collector saying that her wages would be garnished unless she paid off a $10,000 credit card debt that she allegedly ran up in 2003.

A debt so old would normally be beyond the statute of limitations, and legally uncollectable, but the company had a copy of a 2006 default judgment that was entered against her when she failed to respond to a collection lawsuit.

But Ms. Macharia, who opened her first credit card account just three years ago, had no recollection of being notified of a lawsuit, and she was living in Atlanta when the papers were said to have been served on her in California. …

While Ms. Macharia tried to figure out how to contest the debt, the collector began garnishing nearly $800 a month from her paychecks.

It’s about time the government starting acting like a government again. Meanwhile Republicans in Congress are trying to gut the CFPB’s effectiveness because the bureau cracks down on scams like these.

Get updates in your inbox

Comments